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Why getting drought relief to Minnesota farmers may hinge on the state health commissioner’s job status

For weeks, Tim Walz has been locked in debate with Senate Republicans over a GOP threat to remove Jan Malcolm as MDH commissioner during a special session.

In addition to the $5 million in grants, Gov. Tim Walz’s plan also has $5 million for a disaster recovery, zero-interest loan program.
In addition to the $5 million in grants, Gov. Tim Walz’s plan also has $5 million for a disaster recovery, zero-interest loan program.
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein

On Friday, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz visited a farm in Hastings to propose a $10 million package to help farmers affected by Minnesota’s spring and summer drought. 

That proposal includes $5 million in grants of up to $5,000 for things like water tanks, water hauling and irrigation equipment while also offering $5 million for a zero-interest loan program. 

But while lawmakers in the DFL-controlled state House and Republican-led Senate have signaled support for quickly passing some sort of relief in a fall special legislative session, the drought-related effort is likely to be caught up in a much larger political battle. For weeks, Walz has been locked in debate with Senate Republicans over a GOP threat to remove the state’s health commissioner if he calls a special session to dole out cash bonuses for COVID-19 frontline workers. Walz and legislators also have to agree on how to distribute the bonuses.

That leaves farmers and ag interest groups, most of whom are pushing for quick relief money, stuck in limbo.

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Farmers struggle through the drought 

Much of Minnesota experienced an intense drought this year. In early August, more than three-quarters of the state was considered to be in severe or extreme drought. While that has eased in some areas lately, the lack of rain wrecked many crops. 

Kevin Paap
Kevin Paap
Kevin Paap, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, said the drought was especially tough on cattle and dairy farmers who can’t rely on crop insurance in the same way farmers for traditional row crops like corn and soybeans can. Lack of water meant less feed, forcing farmers to sell cattle early, deplete stores of food or buy it elsewhere at higher prices because of the shortage.

“You’ve got some families that have got a whole generation or multi generations of genetics and breeding and working with those animals,” Paap said. “If they have to liquidate some of those, you just can’t start over with that if you choose to get back in it later.”

He said late rains helped a little, especially with the last of four “cuttings” of alfalfa, which cows eat. But the moisture didn’t stave off problems entirely. “First cutting was OK, second and third were dismal to non-existent.” 

Thom Petersen, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, said Friday that nearly 60 percent of the state’s pastureland is in “very poor” or “poor” condition.

Kathy Zeman, executive director of the Minnesota Farmers’ Market Association, said small-scale and specialty farmers also can’t rely on crop insurance or other government help in the way that traditional commodity farmers do. Many are working on “an acre here or an acre there,” and struggled through the drought.

“There’s not a well on all of those places, so they were literally finding trucks that could haul water to their place so they could water by pail or whatever they could do early in the spring just to get seed to germinate,” Zeman said. “The ones that did have wells, many of them went dry. And as the wells ran dry they began to hit high nitrate levels in the water sample.”

The association includes about 346 farmers markets and roughly 4,000 vendors. 

Thom Petersen, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, said Friday that nearly 60 percent of the state’s pasture land is in “very poor” or “poor” condition.
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
Thom Petersen, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, said Friday that nearly 60 percent of the state’s pasture land is in “very poor” or “poor” condition.
Liz Dwyer, who grows organic vegetables and raises livestock like sheep, goats, quail and chickens at Dancing the Land Farm in Clearwater, said Thursday she had to end her 100-member farm-share program — also known as Community Supported Agriculture or a CSA — eight weeks early because of the drought. A lack of hay meant butchering animals early, and a surplus of meat among many farmers led to lower prices.

Liz Dwyer
Screen shot
Liz Dwyer
“We’re just faced with … disappointing a whole bunch of CSA customers, which damages our reputation, which is everything,” Dwyer said during a meeting of farmers hosted online by the farmers’ market association and the nonprofit Land Stewardship Project. “Some people get it, we have some people who are awesome and we have some people who will simply not return to be our customers.”

The plan to help farmers

In addition to the $5 million in grants, Walz’s plan also has $5 million for a disaster recovery, zero-interest loan program. Petersen, the Ag commissioner, said the first million in grants is dedicated to specialty farmers and livestock producers “and then kind of see how the applications are coming in” to determine where the rest of the money will go.

Key lawmakers in the House DFL and Senate GOP support some form of drought relief package.

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Sen. Torrey Westrom, an Elbow Lake Republican who chairs the Senate’s Agriculture and Rural Development Finance and Policy Committee, said the late-season rain has changed the discussion somewhat over early drought relief ideas. “But it was of course a little later than most farmers could use for help,” he said. “We know there’s still some need out there.”

State Sen. Torrey Westrom
State Sen. Torrey Westrom
Earlier this week, Westrom said the GOP is considering “limited drought relief,” especially for livestock farmers, such as smaller grants up to $5,000 to help farmers with one-time expenses to help them “limp through to get into harvest.”

Another possibility is property tax rebates in addition to the grants, though he said the details need to be worked out. He estimated a relief package to be in the “$12 million range.”

Rep. Samantha Vang, a Brooklyn Center Democrat who is vice chairwoman of the House’s Agriculture Finance and Policy committee, said she is most interested in a combination of some debt relief and financial help for livestock and specialty crop farmers. “If I had it all my way, I would also look at preventative measures and how we can be more climate-resilient, setting up infrastructure that will better serve the needs of farmers for the long term,” said Vang. “But I think that it’s really important that we focus on the rapid response because right now this is the year that kills small farmers.”

Ag groups generally endorsed the idea of “rapid response” grants, though Zeman, of the farmers’ market association, said they should be larger in scope: up to $7,000. But “they just need to get them cash,” she said. 

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And everyone seems to agree the money is most helpful if it’s distributed sooner rather than later. “The animals need to eat now,” said Gary Wertish, president of the Minnesota Farmers Union. “I don’t think (farmers) are looking at recovering losses, they’re just looking at ways to survive, how we can get through this.”

Caught up in a debate over MDH commissioner

Drought relief is now squarely on the agenda of a fall special session — if a fall special session actually happens.

Not only do lawmakers have to strike a deal on how to spend $250 million in bonus checks for essential workers — known as “hero pay” around the Capitol — but Walz said Friday in Hastings that GOP legislators will have to promise they will not remove Jan Malcolm as commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Health. The Minnesota Senate has power to confirm or reject commissioners, and legislators often wait years to do so. But only Walz can convene a special session.

“This is in their court, this has nothing to do with the drought, it has nothing to do with the hero pay, it has everything to do with politics,” Walz said. “I’m operating under the assumption that they are not going to hold up drought relief for farmers, they are not going to hold up hero pay because they want to score political points.”

Gary Wertish, president of the Minnesota Farmers Union: “The animals need to eat now.”
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
Gary Wertish, president of the Minnesota Farmers Union: “The animals need to eat now.”
Republicans have been frustrated with the Walz administration’s handling of public health restrictions on businesses and public life during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some contend Malcolm and MDH have been either promoting COVID-19 vaccine “passports” at businesses and events through a phone app that tracks vaccination status or nudging employers and colleges to mandate the vaccine. But, like Walz, the GOP also wants drought relief money.

Westrom, the GOP senator, said he’d prefer to hash out the issue before any special session, and not let the issue slip until lawmakers reconvene for a regularly scheduled session in late January. “I think it gets to be harder to cut through the chatter and get this through as focused as we could if we do it in a targeted special session.”

“It doesn’t mean it couldn’t be a priority of early session (next year) if that’s the plan B,” Westrom said.

Still, Westrom said there’s no reason the Senate should “have to agree to other conditions be called back into session, which was the agreement back in June.” (When Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, was still majority leader, he said that “our intent would be that we just do the front-line workers.” Sen. Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, is now the Republican majority leader.)

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Westrom said Walz “is not the Legislature” and lawmakers should be able to take up what they want, whether that is confirmations or drought relief. 

Miller said in a statement on Friday that the Senate “will work with the [agriculture] commissioner and his team to find a bipartisan solution to provide support to Minnesota’s farmers affected by the drought.”

Caught in the middle, the most prominent farm groups are for now mostly staying out of the fray over Malcolm.

Paap, the Farm Bureau president, said money for hay isn’t as urgent now because “quite frankly that should have happened a month or two ago.”

“Sooner is always best,” he said. “But if it’s going to cause issues getting into politics — we don’t want to do that in agriculture. We’d much rather have some help that’s bipartisan.”

Allison VanDerWal, executive director of the Minnesota State Cattlemen’s Association, said a drought relief package is “extremely urgent,” but said the organization is “trying to stay out of” debate over hero pay and Malcolm’s position. “I think we just need to think about our state and what we really need, and I guess the drought is something that’s affecting our producers and it’s something that we need to act on now,” she said.

Wertish, however, said talk of removing Malcolm was “political.” Republicans shouldn’t fire Malcolm because they don’t agree with vaccine tactics during a pandemic, he said. “I’m very upset that part has turned political and it should not be,” he said. “That should not be part of a special session to get relief to people that actually need it.”