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With no agreement in the Minnesota legislature, farmers suffer from last year’s drought

More than three-quarters of the state experienced severe or extreme drought last year, which farm groups said was particularly tough on cattle and dairy farmers who can’t rely on crop insurance in the same way farmers for commodity crops like corn and soybeans can.

Dairy cows
Even though farm aid is one of the few issues at the Capitol to draw support from Democrats and Republicans, the money appears to be caught up in a partisan debate anyway.
REUTERS/Jane Ross

Since last fall, Gov. Tim Walz and state lawmakers from the two major political parties have called for money to help livestock and produce farmers deal with last year’s drought.

But nearly a month after the Legislature convened its 2022 session, that aid hasn’t arrived, and it is not on track to be approved any time soon either despite calls for quick cash from politically influential agriculture organizations. Even though farm aid is one of the few issues at the Capitol to draw support from Democrats and Republicans, the money appears to be caught up in a partisan debate anyway.

The cash for farmers was initially stalled last year because of a debate over whether the Republican-led Senate would fire Walz’s health commissioner. Now, leaders in the Democratic-controlled House say they won’t pass $10 million for farmers without a $13 million plan for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to replant drought-affected forest and help local governments plant shade trees and conserve water. Republicans, meanwhile, say the aid unrelated to agriculture needs more scrutiny.

“The money is sorely needed by some of our producers and it was needed yesterday,” said Krist Wollum, legislative chair of the Minnesota State Cattlemen’s Association, in a Feb. 16 hearing in the House’s Agriculture Finance and Policy Committee.

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Drought impacts create call for help

More than three-quarters of the state experienced severe or extreme drought last year, which farm groups said was particularly tough on cattle and dairy farmers who can’t rely on crop insurance in the same way farmers for commodity crops like corn and soybeans can.

Gov. Tim Walz
REUTERS/Nick Pfosi
Gov. Tim Walz
The drought hurt feed, which led to farmers either selling cattle early, using up food reserves or paying more for extra. Small-scale and specialty farmers also felt the brunt of the drought without insurance systems to help. 

In September, Walz proposed a $10 million package to help farmers and said he hoped it would pass quickly, possibly in a special session of the Legislature. The concept of drought relief drew bipartisan support, as did support for approving money in a special session, because legislators said the money was needed to help farmers feed their animals quickly. But Walz never called that special session. 

Sen. Torrey Westrom, a Republican from Elbow Lake who chairs the Senate’s Agriculture and Rural Development Finance and Policy Committee, said at the time he wanted a “targeted” special session because it would be harder to “cut through the chatter” and pass a drought relief bill during a regular legislative session where lawmakers would be debating tons of other issues.

Lawmakers also wanted to pass cash bonuses for frontline workers in a special session, but couldn’t agree who should get the money. And the governor failed to get assurances the Senate GOP would not oust Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm over the state’s COVID-19 response.

DFL ties together farm aid, money for tree planting, water conservation

The regular session of the Minnesota Legislature convened several months later, on Jan. 31, and so far House Democrats have advanced a $10 million drought relief package. It includes $5.1 million for grants and other forms of financial help for livestock farmers and specialty crop producers hurt by drought and another $5 million for a revolving account that can issue loans for drought relief.

In a letter to the House agriculture committee, Dan Glessing, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, said the money would help farmers with the cost of feed, water hauling and handling, fencing supplies and more. That farm aid legislation was approved in a House agriculture committee unanimously in mid-February with Republican support. 

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But Democrats merged the agriculture relief money with a separate $13.3 million drought proposal, which includes $5.5 million to pay for drought-killed seedlings on DNR-managed lands which are part of a state reforestation effort, as well as seedlings killed by drought on tribal, county and private forestland. Another $4.5 million would pay for local governments and tribes to remove and plant shade trees hurt by drought and to give those governments equipment to water trees.

State Sen. Torrey Westrom
State Sen. Torrey Westrom
Then $3 million would pay for grants to help local governments better conserve water.

“If we look at DNR lands we are estimating that there’s mortality of up to 72 percent for conifer plantings less than four years old,” said DNR commissioner Sarah Strommen, during a hearing Tuesday in the House’s Environment and Natural Resources Finance and Policy Committee, referencing the $5.5 million for reforestation. “And in fact some of our field monitoring this summer revealed seedling mortality of 100 percent at some DNR sites.”

State Rep. Rick Hansen, a South St. Paul Democrat who chairs the environmental committee, said the legislation had been delayed in the first couple of weeks of session because it took some time for the bill to get drafted and introduced. But the House has fast-tracked the drought money by moving it on its own for a potential floor vote. Most bills are passed by the House or Senate as part of a package, called an omnibus bill, put together by a committee focused on a certain topic.

“If the bill gets signed into law on the farming side, that they can get resources out to people who may need to be feeding cattle or livestock here at the end of winter,” Hansen said. “That’s when the stocks run out.”

State Rep. Rick Hansen
Hansen also said the House DFL will only move the money meant for trees and water conservation along with the money for agriculture in the same bill since drought impacted both. 

“The public resource was affected just like the private resource,” he said. “We’re all in this together.”

House Republicans on Hansen’s committee weren’t thrilled about the combo legislation, however, or the speed of the DFL.

State Rep. Dale Lueck, R-Aitkin, complained at the hearing that it took four weeks for the drought bill to reach the environmental committee while “we’re sitting on people that are trying to buy feed to keep cattle in Minnesota.” Lueck questioned if the money for DNR in the drought bill had bogged down the farm aid, though DNR did first propose the cash in October.

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Either way, Lueck said the DNR plans also weren’t needed as quickly and wondered if the DNR had expertise in some aspects of the plan, namely the water conservation. 

“It’s one of the few times in my history I’m going to vote against a drought relief package because I don’t think the governor’s office or your office gets it,” Lueck said, speaking to the DNR’s Strommen. “I have very mixed emotions about this because I’m a tree person but I really think the DNR has just gotten out of school here just a little bit.”

The environment committee approved the bill on a 12-7 vote that largely broke along party lines. Rep. Susan Akland, R-St. Peter, voted with Democrats in favor of the bill for farm aid and DNR drought relief efforts.

Senate eyeing its own plans

The Republican-led Senate is moving slower than the House on the issue. The GOP in that chamber hasn’t held any hearings on drought relief yet, though one is scheduled for Wednesday.

Westrom, the Elbow Lake Republican who chairs the Senate’s agriculture committee, said he hopes to move a bill quickly through the legislative process. He said he’s waiting for more direction from GOP leaders on how much money he could use in the Republican plan, but Westrom introduced a $10 million bill that is split between grants for livestock farmers and specialty crop producers and drought relief loans.

Westrom said he’s focused primarily on helping livestock farmers and hasn’t heard much concern personally from produce farmers, and he sharply criticized the DFL for connecting farm drought relief with money for reforestation and water conservation efforts. 

“I think it’s almost shameless that they would come forward and put themselves in the same category as our struggling farmers,” Westrom said. “My jaw dropped when I heard that.”

Westrom said some question if DNR should be in the business of tree farming and said the DNR can make its case for drought relief money over the course of the legislative session while farmers need help more quickly. Connecting the money for farmers with the money for trees and water conservation will slow the ag money down “and make it less impactful for farmers,” Westrom said, because the GOP believes the money for DNR plans needs more scrutiny than the cash for farmers.

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“I think it becomes a real boat anchor,” he said of the DNR’s initiative.

He predicted the GOP legislation could clear the Senate in the next couple of weeks. In the meantime, farm groups say drought impacts continue to hurt. In the Farm Bureau’s letter to the House agriculture committee, organization president Glessing highlighted a few stories of farmers struggling with drought. According to Glessing, one farmer in Itasca county had to buy extra hay to feed livestock, and said the cost was double and he had to bring it in from 150 miles away.

“Without timely support, they are considering selling their entire herd,” Glessing’s letter says. “The drought is long over for many, but for family farmers and ranchers across the state the impacts continue.”