Preserving our farming heritage, investing in the future

Published 7:41 am Friday, March 30, 2018

By Tim Penny

President, CEO of Southern Minnesota Initiative

Despite the occasional snowflake, spring is officially at our doorstep. While many of us spend the winter months hibernating, farmers have been busy planning for the season and are now awaiting the day when they can prepare the soil and get crops in the ground. We will soon start to see green sprouts in fields all across southern Minnesota, a visual testament to the prevalence of agriculture in our region. In fact, agriculture production and processing is a foundational element to our state’s economy, accounting for $57.5 billion in sales and more than 147,000 jobs according to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA). At Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation (SMIF) we strive to not only preserve but to grow the farming tradition in our region.

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I recently had the pleasure of meeting with farmers at the North American Farm and Power Show in Owatonna. Many farmers in our region work on the same land that their parents, grandparents, or even great-grandparents farmed. It is clear that the farm is more than a parcel of land to grow crops or raise animals — it is a living piece of family history. At the same time, we are faced with the reality that the average farmer is 55 years or older, and that not everyone has an heir to transfer the land to.

At SMIF we want to ensure that farmland stays in production throughout our 20-county region. Our farmland retention program allows farmers to donate land as a charitable gift. SMIF then retains the land as an asset and would keep the land in production by a rental arrangement. The rent earned goes back into the local community, either through one of our 26 area community foundations, or as a donor advised fund. This is a unique way for farmers to make a long-lasting impact on rural Minnesota. This program keeps the land locally-owned and functional as farmland, while giving farmers a mechanism to provide a lasting legacy to the region. To learn more about farmland retention and the 26 community foundations visit

As we seek to preserve southern Minnesota’s heritage, we are also actively investing in a new wave of farmers and food producers that are contributing to a fast-growing local food economy. The FEAST! Local Food Network is a group of regional partners working to develop a coordinated and sustainable food system in southern Minnesota. The group is made up of representatives from SMIF, Renewing the Countryside, Minnesota Department of Agriculture, University of Minnesota Regional Sustainable Development Partnership, and many more.

This network supports food and farming entrepreneurs by providing technical assistance, peer networking opportunities, and financial assistance, including the new Grow a Farmer loan program. This program offers loans up to $15,000 to help small-scale food producers purchase the equipment and supplies they need to be successful. Hare and Tortoise Farm of Zumbro Falls recently used the loan to scale up their operations by installing a waterway and purchasing a root washer for their vegetable farm.

Another way the network is supporting the local food and farming system is through a new FEAST! Smart Start Initiative grant program. Four applicants will be awarded a total of up to $10,000 each to support individual farm and food entrepreneurs through a structured technical assistance and customized coaching process. This grant program will build community resources for creating a resilient food economy for southern Minnesota.

It is a high priority at SMIF to support these initiatives, especially because our state ranks eighth in the number of farms, and 10th in the number of USDA- certified organic farms (MDA). Farmers are the backbone of our southern Minnesota economy, and we are honored to be in a position of providing tools to ensure that this legacy continues.

As always, I welcome your comments and questions. You can reach me at or 507-455-3215.