Grant Herfindahl runs an agency that’s familiar to all Minnesota farmers but little known to the general public. The Farm Service Agency is the financial arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and administers farm commodity, conservation reserve and other programs dealing with loans, disaster assistance and crop loss coverage. As state executive director for the past 11 months, Herfindahl has overseen a staff in 74 county offices, including the one he directed in Pope County for most of his 21-year FSA career. Before that, Herfindahl worked for 20 years on the family farm that he still owns near Benson in Swift County. As a political appointee, Herfindahl, 64, will leave his job to retire on Jan. 20, and he offered some parting thoughts last week. Some excerpts:
Q: What changes in farming have you observed over the last 40 years?
A: It’s become much more specialized in many ways. Many crop farmers grow only two commodity crops, corn and soybeans. Years ago, they would have been more diversified with livestock, and maybe a few milk cows. And the number of farms have dropped. When I began working in Pope County 20 years ago, there were about 115 dairies, and now maybe there’s 30 left. And all of those 115 dairies were cumulatively raising about 6,000 cows. Today we’ve got new dairies coming up that are 6,000 cows in one dairy. This trend has been happening for a long time.
Q: Is this true across all levels of farming?
A: When I started farming in the mid-1970s, a person could make a nice living on 400 acres. Now you probably need closer to 2,000 acres for somebody that’s doing it full time. On the other hand, you have people farming 300 or 400 acres with full-time jobs in town. They have a niche, and that hasn’t changed a whole lot in 40 years. But the midsize farmers are the ones that we keep losing. The ones that farm 600 acres or 1,000 acres are getting consolidated. That’s when you get into a little bit of a cost squeeze. The cost of machinery goes up, the cost of seed and other inputs goes up, and you need to spread those costs over a larger number of acres. It’s not the small farms that are consolidating, as much as the middle-size ones.
Q: What about small farms?
A: Niche farming to produce local foods and urban agriculture are fascinating, and the demand is there for organic crops. There’s lots of that, but I don’t know if we’re going to change the industrialization of commodities like corn and soybeans that are used for ethanol and export marketing.
Q: Is something lost as most crop and livestock farms trend toward much larger operations?
A: I used to drive in the country 40 years ago, and in the spring you’d see tractors all over. And several hours later, they’d still be in the fields. And you’d have farmers stopping at the end of their field to talk to their neighbor farmer. Now with large machinery and large acreage, you don’t see that. Someone pulls into a field with a 60-foot field cultivator driving 7 miles an hour and you barely see them. They’re in and they’re out and on to another field. That’s just the way the world works. But it has changed community and changed our schools, because there’s just not as many people. You can get into all those factors and feel nostalgic, but it’s a fact of life. It’s an economic change, and I don’t see any trend that will turn that around.
Q: Your agency offers programs to farmers that range from land conservation to disaster assistance to crop loss coverage and farm loans and subsidies. Some have criticized these programs as too generous and too costly for taxpayers.
A: I couldn’t do my job in government service if I didn’t believe in farm programs that help to stabilize our rural communities. Through the periods of high prices and low prices, what the government programs have been able to do is take some of the highs and lows out and keep families in farming. Our business is not like the stock market. If a stock goes down, I can hang on until it gets back up. In commodities, you have a perishable product and how long you can hang on to that is measured in months before it has to go on the market. Eventually you have to sell into whatever price you can get. Farm programs have helped provide a bridge to keep many in business in tough years, although that doesn’t mean we still haven’t seen a lot of farms disappearing over the last 40 years.
Q: What’s the biggest challenge for farmers now and as we move into the next few years?
A: Succession and keeping families out there farming. There was a whole generation that went through the 1980s whose parents discouraged their children from going into farming. Well, if there’s not a lot of profitability in farming, we’ll see a lack of people wanting to come in and that will just drive farms to consolidate even more.
Q: Is that a bad thing?
A: Not as far as production, but it is a bad thing for communities and rural areas. As we reduce the number of families, you take away from rural communities and economies that have a lot of value for the state.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: Even though my career path was nonpolitical, once I took this job as state executive director it becomes a political position. I knew that going into the job, and I have no problem with that. I need to vacate my office by 11 a.m. on Jan. 20 when the inauguration happens. Once the party changes, I will be heading home to my farm to retire and I have a lot of interests.