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Even hardy farmers need a little help sometimes

One of the real pleasures of being Agriculture Commissioner is the opportunity to get to know so many of Minnesota's energetic and talented farmers.

It can really lift your spirits to meet someone who is excited about their prospects and profession.

I can't tell you how many times I've felt my own enthusiasm boosted by a conversation with an innovative, optimistic producer eager to carve out a profitable niche in the marketplace.

On the flip side, when times are tough, it's much more difficult to know so many of those talented, hard-working producers are facing setbacks and hardship. While there are some things a state agency like ours can do to help, it's beyond any individual state's power to completely shelter its farmers from the economic downturns.

Right now, our pork and dairy producers are facing a particularly difficult time. There are a variety of factors at work in each case, but a common link is the global recession that has slowed demand for U.S. agricultural products in other countries. For some producers, this downturn is the final straw forcing them off the farm. As a member of a multi-generation family farm, I sympathize with those who feel a deep disappointment at having to get out of the family business.

At the same time, I think it's important that the agriculture community reject the old concept that business failure is the result of poor choices or personal shortcomings. This mindset adds to the pressure felt by a farmer in crisis, and it doesn't reflect the modern complexity of agriculture and our economy.

Agriculture isn't the only sector in which good people have had bad things happen. Look around the country at the many struggling corporations run by top business minds that didn't foresee this economic downturn. Look at the millions of Americans who lost jobs or homes over the last year. Sure, some made choices that made their situation worse, but many more simply got caught in the wrong spot at the wrong time.

On top of that, we need to remember that at no time in the history of agriculture has a farmer needed to be more skilled at more tasks. Today's producers still face the same challenges of previous generations, including weather, disease threats, input costs and commodity prices. However, today more than ever, some of those factors swing wildly from one extreme to another. As a result, our success increasingly depends on off-farm factors like exchange rates, energy policies, international trade relations, fickle consumer trends, and more than a little luck.

With this in mind, I encourage financially stressed producers to be aggressive about seeking help. The first step in many cases is to contact your lender to discuss any problems you see approaching. Sure, asking for help can be difficult for those of us raised on the image of the independent, self-reliant American farmer, but it's easier to address a problem before it has blown up into a real crisis.

In some cases, the next step is to reach out to one of the many organizations set up to help producers facing crises. A list of programs can be found at MDA's website:

Most of all, if you're a producer facing financial challenges, don't blame yourself for being one of the millions of Americans facing adversity in a sour economy.

(Gene Hugoson is the commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.)