Minnesota approves loan programs, moves to help farmers whose flocks hit by bird flu

Published 10:00 am Tuesday, May 5, 2015

ST. PAUL (AP) — Minnesota lawmakers moved quickly on Monday to help turkey farmers beset by a deadly and growing outbreak of bird flu, putting together a patchwork of loan programs and emergency response funding to cover farmers’ losses.

The House voted 110 to 18 for a budget bill for the state’s agricultural agencies with a sharp focus on the outbreak. Typically one of the first funding bills lawmakers take up during budget years, the GOP-controlled House hit the pause button on the agricultural budget as the state struggled to grasp the scope of the problem.

Eighty chicken and turkey farms in Minnesota had been hit as of Monday, costing farmers in the nation’s largest turkey-producing state more than 5.3 million birds, according to the state. Officials disclosed Monday that one farm in Nicollet County lost more than 1.1 million hens.

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“This goes beyond the immediate crisis of the avian influenza,” said Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City. “There are producers struggling to hold on to their operations, struggling to keep employees working.”

As lawmakers scramble to piece together the state’s budget — a time typically ripe for partisan bickering — the House quickly added a provision to that would send more than $6 million to better fund the state’s response efforts, another that would extend unemployment insurance to employees at farms shuttered by bird flu and a separate one to expand a low-interest state loan program to help farmers get their businesses back up and running.

Another amendment added to the bill may open the door for the state to reimburse farmers for birds that died from the virus. The federal government pays only for euthanized birds, leaving the costs to farmers for early deaths before regulators caught on to the virus and as the state struggled with a backlog of affected farms.

Many of those amendments passed unanimously.

“Minnesotans are asking us to work together,” said Democratic Rep. Clark Johnson of North Mankato. “This is a bill where we worked together.”

It’s been a bipartisan effort and a top priority at the Legislature to come to turkey farmers’ aid since the outbreak began in early March. The Democrat-controlled Senate is also considering similar proposals. And Gov. Mark Dayton on Monday voiced his support for the loan program, which would dole out up to $200,000 to an affected farmer.

Before carving a turkey at lunch last week to prove turkey is still safe to eat, Dayton outlined his idea for up to $100,000 in loans. But he’s on board with increasing that sum, he said.

“I think that will be certainly warranted,” the Democratic governor said.