State lawmakers at odds over drought relief package

Published 8:31 pm Friday, March 4, 2022

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ST. PAUL — Minnesota farmers and ranchers still reeling from last summer’s drought are asking the Legislature for urgency on relief, though lawmakers on either side of the aisle have yet to agree on what a final package should look like.

Relief legislation in both chambers includes $5 million in grants for livestock farmers and specialty crop producers impacted by the drought and $5 million for zero-interest loans for losses not covered by insurance.

But an additional $13.3 million for drought recovery on state-managed lands and local governments may be a potential snag that could delay the much-needed funds.

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Last summer’s drought ended for many farmers who saw late-season rain, and federal safety net programs helped them weather the dry conditions. But many livestock farmers and specialty crop producers are still struggling. The grants would help lessen the burden by paying for specific needs like feed and watering supplies, said Amber Glaeser, Minnesota Farm Bureau’s director of public policy.

“It’s not going to make farmers whole,” she said. “But it’s going to definitely help with paying some of those bills and making it through some of these incredibly tough times to kind of survive the year and get back on their feet.”

Cattle farmer Miles Kuschel saw hay production on his ranch fall by more than two thirds, which forced him to sell some of his cattle and move half of his herd out of the state to sustain them, he told lawmakers during a Senate agriculture committee hearing Wednesday.

Dancing the Land Farm owner Liz Dwyer said she had to end her community-supported agriculture program that served 100 customers eight weeks early and also had to send underweight lambs and goats to the butcher a month early due to poor pasture conditions.

The losses forced her husband to get a second job, she said. And they had to apply for food stamps and financial aid to cover preschool costs for their daughter.

“Our farm feeds thousands of families in our community and yet because of last year we can’t even afford to fix our inefficient well, let alone approach recovery because there is no meaningful aid for specialty growers like me,” Dwyer told lawmakers. “Our story is harsh, and I know we aren’t the only ones feeling it.”

The $10 million Senate bill matches a proposal Democratic Gov. Tim Walz announced in September. But the governor held off on calling lawmakers back to the Capitol for a special session due to fears that Senate Republicans would fire Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm.

The $13.3 million for the state Department of Natural Resources in the House package, which awaits a floor vote, would pay for replanting trees lost in the drought, as well as for equipment for using water more efficiently and to help sustain trees that are already planted.

Democratic Rep. Rick Hansen, of South St. Paul, who authored the bill, said the funds would help communities around Minnesota as well as the state’s forestry industry. And he said the state’s $9.25 billion surplus gives lawmakers ample room to address issue now.

“In addition to helping out the private resource with agriculture, we have the responsibility of taking care of the public resource, so it’s logical that these would be put together,” he said. “I don’t understand why if one sector is getting their money, why one would be upset with the public sector getting funds for the public resource.”

Republican Sen. Torrey Westrom, of Elbow Lake, the Senate agriculture committee chairman and author of the Senate bill, said that because time is of the essence, the grants shouldn’t be paired with provisions that may require more debate.

“Our farmers need to be the target here. It needs to be quicker, and adding $13 million for the DNR should be a separate discussion,” he said. “That will come with probably a lot more controversy and questions and our farmers shouldn’t be held hostage by the DNR, which is what the House is doing right now if they marry the two of them.”