From trade wars to climate change, farmers’ prospects are increasingly dire. Can tech provide the solution?

One by one, founders of food- and ag-tech startups entered from stage left, wearing black hoodies or a casual blazers over t-shirts emblazoned with their companies’ logos. Their entrance music — personally selected — was drowned out by cheers and applause in the packed 3M Auditorium at the Minnesota History Museum on the first night of Food, Ag, Ideas Week.

It’s the kind of enthusiasm you expect around tech unveilings, but the guy on stage is usually talking about iPhones, not cow udder health.

A little over three months ago, nine startups rolled into downtown St. Paul for the first Techstars Farm to Fork accelerator, during which they acquired mentors, built out their visions at breakneck speed, and crafted the messages they would use to woo investors. They drew energy from their shared ambitions to “disrupt” the food system with data insights, mobile apps, and products that bring solutions to outsized issues like food waste and financing.

During their demo day on-stage pitches, they gave a glimpse of how they’re working to leverage the hundreds of millions of dollars investors are pouring into ag-tech to solve the practical problems perplexing farmers around the country.

“There’s nothing better than thinking about what a farmer needs and the problems they’re facing,” said Lauren Pradhan, managing director of Grow North, the University of Minnesota initiative that spearheaded Food, Ag, Ideas Week. Food, Ag, Ideas was designed to connect people across the food system, from Fortune 500 companies to startups, from retailers to farmers to state workers. Grow North started two years ago to foster a more collaborative region in the areas of food and agriculture innovation.

Efficiency pressure

Across the river less than 24 hours after Techstars’ demo day, a different, much more somber and sparsely populated session showed why approaching innovation from a farmer’s point of view is a big deal.

Sitting in a neat line on a Guthrie Theater stage, a panel including two dairy farmers, a corn and soybean farmer, and two fresh vegetable farmers took turns sharing the biggest threats they’ll face in the next five years. It was the same day the IPCC’s latest climate report was splashed across the front pages of major news outlets, warning of major climate changes inside three decades. Farmers were frank and sometimes pessimistic. They face perpetually low prices and oversaturated markets, trade wars that exacerbate their situations, and weather patterns that keep everyone who works in a field wracked with anxiety.

Alise Sjostrom, who started Redhead Creamery on her parents’ dairy farm five years ago, and Meg Moynihan, an organic dairy farmer, worked hard to focus on opportunities and the role consumers can play in supporting local farms. But Moynihan knows dairy farmers are calling it quits by the dozens. And Sjostrom said robotic milkers — the tech her family dreams about as they face a labor shortage — are completely unreachable because of the cost.

Harold Wolle, board member of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, said his combine keeps getting stuck in the mud. “Despite what people in the administration think, I believe climate change is real.”

Rodrigo Cala, an immigrant from Mexico City who worked in a factory until he could start his own farm in Turtle Lake, Wisconsin, said he makes more money teaching other farmers than selling his crop.

Jack Hedin of Featherstone Farm, who penned an op-ed for the Star Tribune about the danger the weather poses specifically to local food producers, wondered if the never-ending quest for efficiency will ensure farmers can’t afford to keep at it.

Afterward, with his arms folded across his chest, Hedin said he felt like the guy at a NASA convention where everyone is rallying around a mission to Neptune while he contemplates the problems needing attention right here on Earth. If farmers can’t get a fair price that allows them to maintain an operation that provides high quality food while properly stewarding the land, “does what I’m doing really matter?” he asked.

Connecting local markets

Sam Eder, founder of Big Wheelbarrow, one of the Techstars’ nine ag-tech companies, would say yes, it does, and his are the kind of concerns that compelled the company forward in the first place.

Big Wheelbarrow works with buyers who want to source more locally produced food for their grocery stores, restaurants, cafeterias, meal kits, etc., by consolidating inventory lists from small farmers in and around cities, making it available all in one place for buyers to review and place orders. He knows small farms across the country are trying to find stable markets in their region for local products – an area of increasing demand that fetches higher prices. By making it easier for buyers to stock locally grown food, he believes he’s addressing a piece of that.

“When you’re in the trenches, you see that pain and it feels like it’s not getting any better,” Eder said. By rerouting supply chains and cutting out the brokers and distributors that each take their cut, he believes there will be more money for farmers. “That’s really what’s driving us.”
Whether helping farmers access new markets, like Big Wheelbarrow, or eliminating paperwork or replacing ancient equipment and techniques, startups see opportunities to use new technology to help farmers. Meanwhile, farmers need them to approach those opportunities with an eye on the repercussions if their new great idea goes belly-up in a couple of years, Jan Joannides, executive director of Renewing the Countryside, said after leading a lunchtime discussion on local food’s role in revitalizing rural economies.

“Tech does have so much potential… there is so much potential and there are a lot of things tech can bring to make farming better and easier,” she said. “But it can also add risks.”

Mining is a small part of Minnesota’s economy. So why is it such a big political issue?

Visit Iron Range towns like Babbitt, Hibbing, Virginia and Eveleth, Minnesota this election season and it’s not just signs supporting candidates that decorate lawns and businesses.
Signs with slogans like “We Support Mining” are pretty much permanent fixtures in this part of the state, where mining has been an important pillar of the economy for well over a century.

The signs may be numerous, but the number of people actually employed in mining in Minnesota isn’t: Mining is directly responsible for about 0.2 percent of Minnesota’s jobs and less than 3 percent of its economic output, according to state data.

Despite making up a relatively small share of Minnesota’s economy by those measures, mining is a big political issue in races for Minnesota governor, Senate, and Congress. What makes this relatively small industry such a big political deal?

A big impact in Northeastern Minnesota

Mining has a long history in Minnesota, beginning in the 1800s when prospectors looking for gold in the northeastern part of the state struck on something different in the region’s reddish landscape: iron ore.

At first, they passed up the mineral to continue the search for gold. But, by the 1910s, iron ore was mined and shipped from the Vermilion, Mesabi and Cuyuna ranges. Soon, mining was one of the state’s biggest industries.

More than a century later, the majority of the mining activities in Minnesota still have to do with extracting iron ore. Up to 44 million tons of it gets pulled from the Mesabi Iron Range — a narrow strip that stretches from Grand Rapids through Babbitt — each year.

But mining makes up a relatively small share of employment in Minnesota these days. According to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), the state’s mining industry is made up of 210 businesses that employed about 5,700 people in 2017 — fewer than the 8,300 working for Target in downtown Minneapolis in 2017.

Proportionally, though, as Target headquarters is to Minneapolis, mining is to northeastern Minnesota — roughly speaking.

Whereas Target’s 8,300 downtown employees make up about 3 percent of employment in the city of Minneapolis, mining makes up nearly 4 percent of the jobs in northeastern Minnesota, according to DEED’s data (data do not include farm payroll or self-employed people).
What’s more, mining jobs pay considerably more than the average job in the region: nearly $90,000, compared to $43,000 for jobs overall.

Mining jobs are some of the best-paying around in northeast Minnesota, but they aren’t the most stable.

Employment in mining has been dropping in the long-term, thanks to automation and outsourcing, said Cameron Macht, regional analysis and outreach manager at the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

In the last two decades, employment went from about 6,800 to about 5,300.

Mining jobs in Minnesota, 2000-2018

Though the long-term trend has been a decline in employment, employment in the mining industry is closely tied to to the performance of the economy overall. Mining employment dropped during the early 2000s recession and again during the 2008 recession.

Despite a booming economy overall in Minnesota in 2015 and 2016, the state’s mining mining industry saw mines shutter and employment slashed due to low foreign steel prices, said Kelsey Johnson, the president of the Iron Mining Association of Minnesota.

Mines began to reopen in 2016, when President Barack Obama’s administration cracked down on foreign steel dumping. Early this year, President Donald Trump’s administration imposed tariffs designed to further protect the domestic steel industry.

As Trump disparages immigrants, Midwest dairy farmers build bridges to Mexico

Roberto Tecpile often puts in 70 hours a week at the Rosenholm dairy farm in Cochrane, Wisconsin — a place where winter days are short and can be bitterly cold. It is a job that farmers say most Americans refuse to do.

Tecpile, a native of Astacinga, in the Mexican state of Veracruz, has spent nearly 20 years in the United States, the past four working for farmer John Rosenow. According to his boss, Tecpile is the “go-to guy” for fixing farm equipment — whether it be a lawnmower or a gauge. Tecpile said the job is going well, and right now it is the most important thing as he prepares to return home in a year or two.

Tecpile is saving money to build a kitchen for his wife, Veronica, “with cabinets and everything.” She currently cooks outside in their mountain village for their two sons, Kevin, 15, and Aaron, 9, and their daughter, Megan, 4.“I want to work a little bit more. … I want to buy a kitchen for my wife, and for the kids, I want them to have something better,” the 39-year-old dairy worker said. “At times we say being able to be together would be much better, but at the same time, we still don’t have everything arranged.”

Tecpile himself comes from a family of nine children, and it is difficult for him to be away from all of his family. But Rosenow makes sure they know Tecpile is being cared for and that he is working hard.

Rosenow has visited Tecpile’s family twice in Astacinga. Rosenow’s farm is one of 60 to 70 in western Wisconsin and southeast Minnesota involved in Puentes/Bridges, a small nonprofit that organizes annual trips to Mexico to bridge the cultural gap between farmers and their employees — and the physical gap between the workers and their families.

Began in 1990s

The program began in the late 1990s when immigrant workers began to show up on Wisconsin dairy farms. Immigrants now make up an estimated 51 percent of all dairy workers in the United States. Many of these employees are undocumented, making trips back and forth across the border dangerous.

Puentes/Bridges founder Shaun Duvall said she wanted to strengthen language skills and cultural competency so farmers could work better with their new employees.

She recalled that the program started as a challenge from a local University of Wisconsin-Extension agent who suggested, “There’s a lot of farmers in Buffalo County that are hiring Mexican employees. Don’t you want to teach these dairy farmers some Spanish?”

Today the program’s overarching goal is relationship building. Rosenow, who is on the Puentes/Bridges board of directors, said the program has helped him gain insight into the lives of his employees, who risk detention — or even worse — in their quest for a better life.

“I understand a little bit of their motivation to put themselves in danger to come here and to work in a different climate and to make money,” he said.

The effort runs counter to the anti-immigrant sentiment fueled by President Donald Trump, whose negative rhetoric and aggressive policies have included family separations at the border and a sharp uptick in arrests by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The first trip, in 2001, lasted 10 days — a week of intensive language classes, then time for farmers to meet the workers’ families. But those meetings quickly took center stage as Duvall realized the personal interactions were most important.

‘I entrust my sons to you’

“When (the relatives in Mexico) say to the farmer, ‘I entrust my sons to you,’ that’s a pretty big moment. That’s pretty powerful,” she said.

Seven to 10 farmers accompany current Puentes Director Mercedes Falk to Mexico on each year’s trip. Often they travel to the state of Veracruz, which many Wisconsin dairy workers call home. The farmers pay their own way, about $2,000 for a weeklong trip.

Tecpile said five or six members of his family met with Rosenow when he first visited.

“I told them that John is a very hard worker,” he said. “They were very happy to talk with him. The children were very happy to meet him.”

The impact of Puentes/Bridges is felt not just in Mexico. Falk points to an instance of understanding in which a young employee, missing his wife and children back in Mexico, was neglecting to care for the calves on the farm. Instead of being upset that the work was not done, the farmer asked him what was wrong and if his family was all right.

“It may seem like a very simple no-brainer of how to approach it,” Falk said. “But there’s just so much going on on a dairy farm, it’s really hard to slow down and deal with personnel issues when you have hay to make. When farmers understand where their employees are coming from, it just builds that caring relationship.”

Taking health care to the workers

In addition to the Mexico trips, since 2012, Puentes/Bridges has also partnered with nursing students from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire to bring health care directly to the farms through the university’s Health Care for Immigrant and Local Farmers Clinical Immersion program. Associate professor Lisa Schiller said the service evolved out of work she was already doing in western Wisconsin.

Schiller and senior-year nursing students make the trip to 19 dairy farms in nearby Pepin and Buffalo counties, outreach that is supported by the counties’ public health departments. Twice a year, the students visit dairy employees to take blood pressure readings, give flu shots and screen for diabetes, high cholesterol, sexually transmitted infections and tuberculosis. She estimates they have cared for 435 people since the partnership began.

Schiller said the Puentes/Bridges program helps build trust between the workers and the nursing students.

“Working with Puentes has been key to the success of this program,” she said. “Just because within the community, I think both the agricultural community as well as the immigrant community, there’s this kind of reluctance to participate unless you know somebody.”

The students also prepare lessons for the employees, offering information on personal and workplace health. Lessons might include proper lifting techniques, hearing protection or nutrition, including label-reading and portion size.

Puentes/Bridges provides interpreting services during the farm wellness visits as well as transportation for workers who need more advanced health care at the Chippewa Valley Free Clinic in Eau Claire.

Transportation is key, Schiller noted, as anyone in the United States without authorization cannot legally drive in Wisconsin. Many immigrant employees are now fearful of driving long distances to see a doctor because of the threat of being pulled over and deported.

The program also benefits the nursing students, Schiller said. The visits are the culmination of a monthlong preparation in which students learn the risks associated with agricultural work, which continually ranks as one of the most dangerous jobs in America. They also speak with an immigration attorney and make a trip to Rosenow’s farm to see how it operates.

UW-Eau Claire nursing student Clarissa Tripp said the visits deepened her understanding of the struggles some immigrants face, such as the lack of a driver’s license to get to doctor’s appointments and the lack of health insurance to pay for care.

‘They are here, working hard’

“I think it’s easy to listen to the media and listen to the news and demonize people,” Tripp said. “You just kind of place a stigma on people. They (immigrants) are here, working hard. They’re just like you and I.”

Those involved with Puentes/Bridges wish more people shared that understanding. Tecpile said it hurts to hear the president speak poorly about workers like himself. He would like Trump to consider creating a visa for year-round dairy employees. Currently only seasonal agricultural workers can get permission to work here.