As growers gear up to prepare for spring, several local lawmakers are pushing to expedite legislation to help reimburse farmers who battled drought last year.
Earlier this month, the Minnesota House passed legislation to allocate $10 million from the state’s $9.25 billion budget surplus to help drought-affected farmers. Under the bill, $5 million is for reimbursement to affected livestock and specialty crop growers and an additional $5 million for the Rural Finance Authority’s disaster recovery loan program.
Last year’s growing season was difficult for many farmers in western and northern Minnesota. According to the National Drought Mitigation Center map, the drought was the state’s worst since 2013.
Fortunately, local producers seem to have been spared the blow. Jim Purfeerst, Rice County farmer and county commissioner, said while some cattle ranchers were starting to run out of pasture, most local farmers were greatly helped by several timely rains.
“Our soils produced a good crop for us, but I know there are areas of the state that haven’t been so lucky with the rain,” he said. “Our rains really came at the 11th hour, and we needed them to get a good harvest.”
Largely coinciding with the months of August and September, the drought was somewhat shorter than the intense droughts seen in 2006 and 2013. However, it was just as intense if not longer at its peak than those droughts.
Hardest hit was a strip of territory in northwestern Minnesota stretching roughly from International Falls to Crookston. At the height of the drought, this part of the state was rated D4 by the NDMC, the most severe drought category possible.
In the more than two decades of weekly reports posted on the NDMC website, no part of Minnesota has ever experienced such severe drought as this part of the state last fall. At its peak, the D4 area covered about 8% of the state’s land.
Under the legislation, farmers in counties that have been fully or partially included in the D4 zone will be the first to receive assistance. In the second row will be the counties included in the D2 and D3 designations in 2021 – which would include Nicollet and Waseca counties.
For drought-affected farmers, Minnesota Farmers Union government relations director Stu Lourey said help was needed just as quickly. Although many problems may wait until the end of the session in May, Lourey said farmers need help before spring planting.
“Tackling the drought has really been a priority for us since last August,” Lourey said. “We really pushed for the need to move a relief program quickly because it’s not something that’s going to be nearly as useful at the end of May.”
While the House passed its version of the bill with bipartisan support, the Senate has its own version of the bill. Although the Senate bill has not yet been approved by the full body, the Senate Agriculture Committee has approved it.
Notably, the Senate bill includes $6.5 billion in grants to be allocated to producers, but no loans. Also missing is a provision in the House bill that would allocate $10 million to remove and replace shade trees in drought-affected areas and replace drought-killed seedlings.
Instead, the Senate bill includes its own additional provisions, which would provide funding to test animals for disease, as well as a provision to reimburse deer farmers who have lost income due to the movement bans put in place by the Minnesota DNR.
In the House, almost exactly half of the Republican caucus voted against the bill. Among them was Rep. Brian Pfarr, R-LeSueur, who said he thought the bill should be about helping farmers rather than providing the DNR with funding to plant trees.
Notably, the two regional lawmakers in Nicollet and Waseca counties chose to vote yes. Rep. Susan Akland, R-St. Peter, said that given the heavily agricultural makeup of her district, she is inclined to support helping farmers.
“Nicollet County is over 80% rural, so if there’s an opportunity to get drought relief, that’s important,” she said.
Along the same lines, Rep. John Petersburg, R-Waseca, said farmers desperately need help when faced with challenges they can’t control, like a devastating drought.
However, despite the strong bipartisan support, the partisan frustrations that have arisen on so many issues in one of the country’s only divided legislatures have begun to creep into the discussion.
Sen. Nick Frentz, DFL-North Mankato, and Rep. Todd Lippert, DFL-Northfield, both expressed frustration that the Senate hadn’t already decided to pass the drought relief bill. Lippert said he hoped the Senate would pass the bill last week, allowing him to be heard in the Conference Committee, but the vote did not take place.
“I’m not the chair of the committee, but I would say it’s already taken too long to get it done and signed by the governor,” Sen. Frentz added. “It’s something that shouldn’t be partisan.”
Sen. Mike Goggin, R-Red Wing, who sits alongside Frentz on the Senate Agriculture Committee, expressed frustration with the House DFL for inserting the tree-planting provision, arguing that it was a kind of “poison pill”.
Nonetheless, Goggin said he was confident that the differences between the House and Senate bills would not prevent lawmakers from crafting a final bill in a timely manner.
“I think we will be able to get drought relief for our farmers in a clean bill,” he said.