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Minnesota lawmakers reach $18.4 million deal for drought relief, months after historically dry summer

Other issues delayed the bill's advance at the Capitol for months, but it appeared poised to move forward on Friday.

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ST. PAUL — Farmers and ranchers hit by historic drought conditions last year could see state aid under an $18.4 million compromise agreement at the Capitol.

Members of a legislative conference committee for weeks have grappled with the right amount to send to producers and on Friday, May 20, they introduced a negotiated plan with three days left in the legislative session. The proposal would free up $8.1 million in grants and other payments to livestock and specialty crop producers and $2.5 million in loans that could be issued through the state's Rural Finance Authority.

To be eligible, a farmer or rancher would have to apply with the state and prove that they were in a county designated as a primary natural disaster area after the 2021 drought or in a contiguous area. They would also have to list their excess expenses for feed, transportation and other needs attributed to the drought. Applicants could receive up to $7,500 or the total of their additional expenses, whichever is less.

“Yes, we’re past the drought but the lingering effects (continue),” Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen said, noting that some livestock producers looked to sell off their animals months after the heat dried out food sources. “I’m hopeful that this money will be able to help pay a bill or two.”

The proposal would also allocate $1 million to the University of Minnesota Board of Regents to buy additional diagnostic equipment for the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory for chronic wasting disease, African Swine Fever, avian influenza and other animal illnesses. And it would send $1.5 million to the Department of Agriculture's emergency account.

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Farmers and ranchers for months have called on lawmakers to approve relief funding to help offset the hit of the 2021 droughts. And in August, legislative leaders and the governor, along with Minnesota agriculture industry leaders reached a deal to do so.

But in the months since, Republican lawmakers said they wouldn't agree to a special session to take up the proposal without also considering the termination of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm. And during the legislative session, Democrats and Republicans clashed over provisions tacked onto the bill in either chamber.

House Democrats wanted to include $13 million in funding to replant dried-out shade trees and seedlings affected by drought and to create grants for water infrastructure. Republicans sought to build in aid payments for deer farmers affected by laws aimed at preventing the spread of chronic wasting disease.

Ultimately, the aid payments for deer farmers were removed, but lawmakers included $5 million in funding to the Department of Natural Resources to pay for replacement seedlings and $300,000 to help resolve well interferences reported during the drought.

One member of the panel on Friday said the state needed to do more to raise awareness about the funds once they passed since farmers were faced with a new set of problems this year.

“Drought now is one of the farthest issues from our mind, we’re being inundated by rain,” Rep. Paul Anderson, R-Starbuck, said.

The bill moves next to the chambers for possible approval. From there, it could be signed into law by Gov. Tim Walz.

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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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