Linder Family, Red Lake County
“I wish everything was a cooperative,” Steve Linder of Oklee said recently.
It’s no wonder, then, that he’s the Red Lake County Farmers Union President and member of the Red Lake Electric Co-op Board. He’s passionate about building up the cooperative model in his area, one side of the Minnesota Farmers Union triangle and support system for family farmers.
Steve, his wife, Donna, and their three children have carried on the Linder Farm legacy, dating back to his grandfather’s generation. Involved in Farmers Union activities at a young age, he’s never let up on working for family farmers.
The farm story
Steve’s grandparents moved to the Oklee land in 1903 from the Beltrami area. They milked cows for a while, then moved onto beef cattle. Now the family raises corn, soybeans and wheat over their 1,400 acres. Steve estimates he’s been farming for more than 50 years now, and he’s been principal operator for 42 of those years.
“It’s kind of an interesting thing for a kid to figure out when you start farming,” he said. “It can be either when you first have some crop of your own, or when you first start doing work.”
Donna, who is also from Oklee but didn’t grow up on a farm, met Steve at a family wedding in Mexico. When they got married, she jumped right into farming alongside him.
“Steve trained me on driving the combine, and I did a little of everything for quite a few years,” she said. “I also worked at the (Red Lake County Central Elementary) School for five or six years as a paraprofessional.”
They raised three children – Amber, 38, Ben, 24, and Levi, 21. Currently Amber lives in town, while Ben farms with his family and Levi also lives on the farm.
Nudged into action
Exposed to Farmers Union activity from a young age, Steve’s made our organization part of his family farm’s legacy. A Farmers Union member sign adorns the welcoming sign on their driveway, and their barn contains several older pieces of memorabilia.
“I’ve been to almost all of the MFU conventions for the last 30 years,” he said. “My parents were pretty active in Farmers Union, going to county meetings and conventions. My uncle, who lived with us, was active too. I went to Junior Reserve meetings as a kid.”
He was involved in a 1986 tractorcade at the State Capitol and a blockade of the Thief River Falls Farm Service Agency office. More recently, he and Donna joined MFU and North Dakota Farmers Union at the Rally for Agriculture in West Fargo last spring, when President Trump was visiting the area. They made signs for the event and keep them in their garage.
Now, Steve is looking to build momentum in his county Farmers Union and work on recruiting more members. He often joins his local electric cooperative with the Minnesota Rural Electric Association on its lobbying trips to Washington, D.C., though he hasn’t been on an NFU Fly-in yet. He and Donna are active participants in the MFU Renewable Energy Working Sessions, too.
‘It’s like in a dream where you’re running and can’t get anywhere’
Health care, crop insurance and beginning farmer loan programs are the policy issues the Linders cited as most important to them.
“I’d like to see the FSA loan rates be higher too,” Steve said. “Then you’re not forced to sell your crop as quickly when the price is low. The loan rate used to be a lot closer to the market price.”
Though they’ve certainly not been immune to the depressed agricultural economy, the Linders said they don’t feel it’s quite as bad in their area as in the 1980s.
“Around here it’s not as bad, but that was largely weather-related (in the 80s),” Steve said. “From 1979-85, there was flooding every year. In those really wet years, your income would get cut by a third or a half. Now we’ve been having pretty big crops, so it’s different. Though that’s why we have this surplus that keeps the price down. It’s like in a dream, where you’re running and can’t get anywhere.”
The present hard times haven’t discouraged son Ben from farming alongside his parents, but it’s easy to see how anyone can be less inclined to go into the profession.
“When the markets go down, the land price stays high,” Donna said.
That’s why these issues are so important – they affect the price that farmers get for their labor and how the next generation is able to make the transition into being the primary operators.
“You should be able to buy land and pay for it out of the profits of farming,” Steve said. “Right now, it’s pretty damn hard.”
The good news is, the new Farm Bill preserves crop insurance and beginning farmer programs. Improving our health care system has long been a priority for MFU and especially will be at the upcoming Minnesota legislative session.
‘Be grateful for what you have’
With mental health in the agricultural community becoming a more prominent news story, the Linders have made it a priority to raise awareness with their own community.
“I can recognize depression in people,” Steve said. “I’ve talked with people and shared my mental health journey with them. If someone’s alone and isolated, that could be a bad thing.”
Indeed, relationships are an important part of helping with hard times. Steve said he’s been glad to have a supportive partner during the stresses of farming.
“Talking with my wife helps me,” he said. “If you have someone good to talk to, it’s like having a counselor. I also think it’s important to have ag information centers (in rural areas) where people can get help, from therapy to financial advice.”
In their own minds, the Linders find it helpful to keep things in perspective.
“If nothing else, I think about how things could be worse,” Steve said. “I can remember that at least my family is healthy.”
And Donna added, “Be grateful for what you have.”