Grant Herfindahl named state FSA head

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New FSA Director Grant Herfindahl enjoys the solitude of his rural Swift County farm.

With Grant Herfindahl’s appointment to head the Minnesota Farm Service Agency, the two top positions in state agriculture are now headed by two men who grew up farming in Swift County. He joins Dave Frederickson, Minnesota’s commissioner of Agriculture, in St. Paul in serving the state’s agricultural community.

Frederickson, who served four years in the Minnesota Senate and whose district included Swift County, is a former president of both the Minnesota Farmer's Union and National Farmer's Union. He served on Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s staff advising her on agricultural issues. He was also a fourth-generation family farmer from north of Murdock, but has sold his farm and now lives in the Twin Cities.

“I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Grant many, many years,” Frederickson said of Herfindahl’s appointment. “I consider him a good friend. I’m pleased that he has been appointed the state executive director of Minnesota FSA. Grant brings real-life experience to the position, and that will serve him and the rest of Minnesota well.”

Herfindahl, 63, and his wife Hege live on a farm north of Benson. Their farm sits just a mile north of the original family farm site bought by his great grandfather in 1871. For the past 21 years he served as a FSA county director working mostly in Pope County. In 2014 and 2015, he also served as the Douglas County FSA director.

FSA is the financial arm of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). It offers programs covering a wide range of needs farmers have from land conservation to disaster assistance to crop loss coverage and farm loans.

 

Taking a risk on a political appointment

“I am leaving the career path,” Herfindahl said of his taking the state FSA executive director’s position. His first day on the job was Feb. 22. Serving as a county FSA director is a career job with the federal government. But in Minnesota working for the USDA, there are two positions that are political appointees, the head of the Farm Service Agency and the head of Rural Development, he explained.

The FSA position came open at the end of May 2015 with Herfindahl submitting his name for the job. While there is a panel that interviews the candidates, it is Sen. Amy Klobuchar who makes the call, he explained. She also works closely with 7th District U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson on the appointment, he added. Peterson is the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee and once served as its chair.

Months passed without any news on who would fill the position.

Meanwhile, he continued working at a hectic pace covering the FSA operations in both Pope and Douglas counties. In early December, Douglas County finally had someone trained who could take over the county director’s position and Herfindahl was back to working only out of his office in Glenwood.

His application for the state FSA executive director’s job was still in the back of his mind, yet had faded from the immediate anticipation of hearing back that was natural in the first few months after being interviewed for the job.

So when the call came Dec. 21 from the White House liaison to the U.S. Department of Agriculture offering him the position it seemed like something “out of the blue,” he said. While it was incredible getting a call from the White House with the job offer, Herfindahl told the person, “I don’t know. I will have to think about it.”

After chasing to Alexandria and back for two years, he was back in his corner desk at the county FSA office overlooking Lake Minnewaska. “I thought, ‘Life is good.’ This is pretty sweet. I am down to a manageable situation. I am not running myself ragged.”

Herfindahl knew he was old enough to retire, but he loved what he was doing. “I thought, ‘This is good. I am going to just enjoy this.’” Then 10 days after he was done running to Douglas County he got the call. He knew accepting it would be stepping back into the “rat race.”

For a country boy, Herfindahl says, he really was content living on the farm and in small towns while his mother was a teacher in Barrett and Boyd. He had also lived in Litchfield for a short time.

“I am now living in the same house my parents moved into when I was three months old and they had only moved a mile from one farm to the other,” he said. Herfindahl moved into the home he now lives in in 1975 when he returned to Minnesota from Norway where he had attended college, met his wife and where their first child was born.

When he would leave work in Glenwood or Alexandria in recent years, he always thought of his return to the farm in the evenings as his return to his “splendid isolation.” There is no one living close by. He and Hege can go for walks by Sand Lake and up to Lake Hassell without seeing anyone at times.

Making the commitment to take the state FSA director’s job in St. Paul, committing to five days a week in the big city and away from home, wasn’t an easy decision, but it was an opportunity he decided he could not to pass on. He has now found a place to live down by the Mississippi River in St. Paul not far from work, but says he looks forward to seeing the city in his rearview mirror on Fridays.

 

Being the public face of the FSA

As the FSA director, Herfindahl is the overall head of the 74 county offices in the state. Twenty of those offices have farm loan managers as well as their county FSA director. In all, there are 323 county office employees with 20 employees in the state office.

Herfindahl is also the outward face of the FSA with the state ag groups as he works promoting the agency’s programs. People in the office handle the day-to-day operations of the FSA.

His office keeps track of the statistics coming into each of the offices to ensure that information not only gets out to farmers, but also so they can track how signups for various programs are going.

The challenges farmers face with each passing year change with the FSA trying to help them meet those challenges with the tools provided it through the farm bill passed every five years by Congress.

“The primary thing we are looking at now, unlike 1976 when the problem was production, is price,” Herfindahl said. “There are people around here who had the best crop they had in their whole life…” in 2015, he said. Many farmers have the bushels they need to be successful. However, the price of commodities is low today while the price of inputs such as fertilizer, rent, and seed are still at a level that reflects the good prices from several years ago.

When commodity prices fell 25 to 30 percent farmers lost a substantial amount of the income they were living off, Herfindahl said. “Now you have to get your costs of input to drop enough to make up for some of that, or use your cash reserves, because costs aren’t dropping fast enough,” he said. “Your rents didn’t drop 30 percent and your fertilizer didn’t drop 30 percent, or your seed corn price didn’t drop 30 percent,” he said. It did help some that the price of fuel did drop substantially in 2015.

2016 will be a challenge for many farmers. Some are looking at the year as not being much more than a push financially for them if they have a good yield. “When there is a lack of price, you just want to make sure you can stay in the same place,” Herfindahl said.

Despite the challenging times farmers face today, he remains optimistic. “Sometimes hardship brings opportunities, too,” Herfindahl said.

Hard times can bring about innovations in agriculture and the seeking of new opportunities. It was hard times that led farmers in the area to pursue the construction of the Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company (CVEC), he said. “It wouldn’t exist if the prices would have been good. All the corn would have been shipped out of here,” Herfindahl said.

He also says there are new opportunities for young people wanting to get into farming.

“It is not fun to be in the middle of this period of lower commodity prices if you are an existing operator,” Herfindahl said. “But there may be some opportunities for young people to get started in agriculture and maybe even to buy some small acreage. The Farm Service Agency is always going to be there to try to help people.”

There is a new micro loan program for small agriculture projects with loans up to $50,000 for someone who wants to do something in agriculture that is a viable proposal, he said.

Still, he acknowledges that getting young people to get into farming is a challenge today, but one that has to be addressed. “There are a whole lot of people in agriculture who are my age,” he said. Unless there is someone in the family who wants to take over the operation, there aren’t a lot of options. “Getting into farming isn’t cheap and the best way is still having connections,” Herfindahl said.

If a farmer doesn’t have someone in the family to sell to the land could be auctioned off with another farmer buying it or investors purchasing the land. However, seeing land ownership concentrated into fewer hands poses challenges for small communities in rural Minnesota as the population on the farm falls even more.

 

No guarantees of future employment

The state FSA director’s position would be considered a President Barack Obama appointee, Herfindahl said. No matter how well he does in the position, if a Democrat doesn’t win the presidential election in November, Herfindahl will be out of a job shortly after the new president is sworn Jan. 20.

“I will be retiring to the farm,” he said of a Republican winning the presidency. “It wouldn’t probably have been a very wise move to take this job if I would have been 45 years old with only 11 months left in the (current) administration. Worst case scenario - it is a nice cap to my career, best case scenario I am young enough to keep doing this for awhile.”

 

Among the key services FSA offers are:

 

Conservation and Price Support Programs

Farm Storage Facility Loans (FSFL) - The FSFL program offers low interest loans for construction of new grain, biomass, hay, or cold storage facilities.

Marketing Assistance Loans (MAL) - MAL is a low interest, short-term commodity loan that makes it possible for producers to store their grain while prices are typically lower and still have funds to maintain their operating expenses.

Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) - CRP is a 10- 15 year contract program for cropland. In exchange for an annual payment, landowners and/or operators agree to plant a conservation cover and maintain it for the life of the applicable contract.

 

Disaster and Production Programs

Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program (NAP) - NAP provides financial assistance to producers of noninsurable crops when low yields, loss of inventory or prevented planting occur due to a natural disaster.

Margin Protection Program for Dairy (MPP-Dairy) - MPP-Dairy is a voluntary risk management program for dairy producers. MPP-Dairy offers protection to dairy producers when the difference between the all milk prices and the average feed cost (the margin) falls below a certain dollar amount selected by the producer.

Agriculture Risk Coverage (ARC) and Price Loss Coverage Program (PLC) - This is new under the 2014 Farm Bill. ARC and PLC combine provisions from previous programs delivered by the FSA (the counter-cyclical portion of the Direct and Counter-Cyclical Program, the Supplemental Revenue Assistance Payments Program and the Average Crop Revenue Election Program) with revenue insurance delivered by the Risk Management Agency.

 

Farm Loan Programs Direct Farm Operating Loans and Microloans- Eligible applicants may obtain direct loans for up to a maximum indebtedness of $300,000 and a direct operating Microloan for up to a maximum indebtedness of $50,000. Guaranteed farm loans are also available through FSA.

Youth Loans - FSA makes loans to individual youths to establish and operate income-producing projects of modest size in connection with their participation in 4-H clubs, FFA and similar organizations.

Emergency Loans- The purpose of the Emergency Farm Loan is to help producers recover from production and physical losses due to drought, flooding, other natural disasters or quarantine.

 

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