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Minnesota farmers, lawmakers urge the speedy passage of $10 million drought relief package

Efforts to quickly send out grants and loans come months after Minnesota faced historic drought conditions.

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(Getty Images)
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ST. PAUL — Minnesota farmers and ranchers hit hardest by historic drought conditions in 2021 could see additional state aid under a proposal advanced Wednesday, Feb. 16, in a legislative committee.

The Minnesota House Agriculture Finance and Policy Committee voted unanimously to approve a roughly $10 million plan aimed at creating grants and loans for producers in the areas of the state that experienced the most severe impact of dry conditions.

“These funds will target the most severely impacted counties," the bill's author Rep. Mike Sundin, DFL-Esko, said. "These funds won’t make farmers whole, but it will help with a significant bill or additional expense caused by the drought."

Under the proposal, the state would allocate $5 million to the Department of Agriculture to issue $10,000 grants to livestock producers and specialty crop farmers, with a priority on helping those in areas of the state that experienced "exceptional" conditions. The funds could also go toward reimbursing farmers that traveled within 25 miles to buy hay or forage.

Another $5 million would go to the Rural Finance Authority to fund drought relief loans.

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Lawmakers, ag industry groups and farmers on Wednesday said the funds wouldn't resolve their financial problems heading into the 2022 growing season, but they could lessen the sharp impact the drought caused.

Livestock producers around the state said they'd had to sell off some of their herds to afford enough feed for the remaining animals after grazing fields dried up last summer and fall. And specialty crop producers saw their plants wither away before they could be harvested.

“Farmers and ranchers don’t expect the relief to make them whole but the rapid relief grants will help with challenges facing producers that are out of our control,” Cass County rancher Miles Kuschel told the panel.

State Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen said the Walz administration was working to bring a similar bill forward this week and have a finished product approved in March. That could allow the state to turn around checks to farmers and ranchers in April.

Drought relief efforts have picked up bipartisan support at the Capitol and members of the panel said they hoped to see them make it through the Legislature quickly.

“I don’t want to see in any way, shape, or form this bill delayed even a minute,” Rep. Dale Lueck, R-Aitkin, said. “There are real, legitimate emergencies out there. If you’re sitting there, trying to figure out if you’re going to be able to continue to operate this spring, that’s not a really comfortable feeling and even a week or two delay … I have great difficulty following that.”

Republicans on the panel raised concerns about making long-term changes to the Rural Finance Authority in a bill addressing a one-time issue but those were not addressed in changes to the bill.

The panel also advanced a proposal that would send $80,000 to the Department of Agriculture to allow Minnesota's Rural Finance Authority to temporarily bring on one extra employee to more quickly process loans. That proposal was set aside to be considered as part of a larger agriculture bill.

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Follow Dana Ferguson on Twitter  @bydanaferguson , call 651-290-0707 or email  dferguson@forumcomm.com.

Dana Ferguson is a Minnesota Capitol Correspondent for Forum News Service. Ferguson has covered state government and political stories since she joined the news service in 2018, reporting on the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the divided Statehouse and the 2020 election.
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