Minnesotan farmers and rural residents are frustrated. They are frustrated that they have been voicing their opinions on major issues, yet little has been done by legislators and government to address them. In the spring and summer of both 2017 and 2018, the Minnesota Farmer’s Union (MFU) hosted 16 Rural Voices Discussions. The events this spring brought together nearly 350 individuals, including many representing local organizations, to discuss what exactly rural people are thinking in hopes of bringing attention to the major issues facing rural Minnesota. The MFU created a report, What Do Rural People Think?, summarizing the major issues discussed during these listening sessions. So, what exactly are rural people thinking?
At the top of the list is the cost of healthcare. Farmers and small business owners are paying anywhere from $25,000 to $45,000 per year in health insurance premiums and deductibles. This is more than many people earn in jobs that often provide them with access to lower-cost health insurance, still a luxury that most farmers and small business owners do not have. When faced with financial hardship, rural families need to find areas to cut costs, sparking a debate on whether they are able to continue paying for health insurance. Without affordable health care access and insurance coverage, many farmers said they would be unable to continue farming.
The next, yet not surprising, matters addressed were issues regarding agriculture. There is a perceived disconnect between rural people and “St. Paul” (the Governor, the Legislature, the media, urban residents, and governments in general). Increasing the clarity on buffer and ditch mowing regulations came up at every discussion. The lack of housing and employment were cited as issues that need to be addressed and a state and county basis. In addition, the Farm Bill was a hot topic, with discussions on crop insurance, succession plans for retiring farmers, safety nets for produce and organic farmers, and cuts to the USDA.
Furthermore, most of rural Minnesota is dealing with major infrastructure troubles. With roads and bridges in very rough shape, they are fast approaching a major transportation crisis. Suitable roads and bridges are essential for farmers to get their products to market and for rural residents to access services, such as routine and emergency health care. However, Minnesotan policymakers have provided inadequate funding to build or repair roads and bridges.
Also, it was voiced that access to high-speed internet should not be a luxury for family farmers and rural communities. It is seen as an essential part to running farms and small businesses, as well as improving rural education programs. Broadband is an essential utility that should be universally available, not just to urban residents.
“Farmers and rural Minnesotans want the same things we all want,” said Minnesota Deputy Agriculture Commissioner Matthew Wohlman in response to the report. “They want accessible and affordable health care, good schools for their kids, efficient and safe transportation infrastructure and access to broadband internet.”
Another important issue that was raised at a many of the listening sessions was support of programs to address and relieve hunger issues. These programs include Market Bucks, the Good Food Access Program, and the Farm to Food Shelf. It was also mentioned that the implementation of strategies outlined in the Minnesota Food Charter would be beneficial in tackling hunger issues.
Minnesotans- rural and urban alike- need their voices to be heard and their issues to be resolved. According to the Minnesota Farmer’s Union, much of what was heard in 2018 re-emphasizes what was heard in 2017, indicating that the problems have still not been addressed. Being that it is a time of even more severe economic hardship in rural Minnesota, it is essential to listen and understand what rural Minnesotans are facing to make effective policy decisions.