Four key bills related to sustainable agriculture were passed during two days of hearings earlier this week. The hearings, which were held by Rep. Mary Ellen Otremba, Chair of the Agriculture, Rural Economies and Veterans Affairs Committee, are an important sign that legislators are recognizing the growing importance of sustainable/organic agriculture as one of the fastest growing sectors in farming today. The bills that came out of those hearings are icing on the environmenally-friendly farming cake. If they are eventually signed into law, Minnesota will send an important message to farmers and the general citizenry: sustainable agriculture is a public good, and therefore deserves public support.
The bills, which were passed unanimously by the committee, provide funding and resources to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and the University of Minnesota for research and promotion of sustainable and organic agriculture. They include funding for the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture at the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Organic Cost Share Program and Energy and Sustainable Ag Grant Program. These initiatives have garnered national acclaim for their effectiveness, but as demand for their services has grown in recent years, their budgets have not kept pace.
The hearings, which took place on Monday and Wednesday, included testimony from the Land Stewardship Project, other sustainable and agricultural organizations, members of the Minnesota Organic Advisory Task Force and faculty at the University of Minnesota. Also providing testimony were organic and sustainable farmers, including Atina Difley of Gardens of Eagan produce farm near Farmington, and Loretta Jaus, an organic dairy producer from Gibbon who produces for Organic Valley, the largest farmer-owned organic dairy co-op in the country (you can hear a podcast featuring Loretta at Ear to the Ground No. 25). Also testifying was Jean Andreasen, the general manager of PastureLand, a cooperative consisting of five southeast Minnesota organic, grass-based dairy operations that produce award-winning butter and cheese. It was an impressive cross-section of the sustainable ag community. Even Rep. Ken Tschumper, an innovative sustainable dairy farmer himself, testified.
The farmers and business leaders who testified spoke of an immediate need for increased research into sustainable and organic agriculture at both the Department of Agriculture and the University of Minnesota. In years past, pioneering sustainable and organic farming techniques have been developed on-farm without state funded research. In response, to meet the needs of this segment of agriculture, the state developed organic and sustainable research programs. However, funding for this work has decreased as demand has increased. The message from testifiers this week was that to realize the growth potential of this rapidly growing market, Minnesota must reinvest in research in this area.
The bills heard and passed by the Agriculture, Rural Economies and Veterans Affairs Committee this week:
• House File 710, Rep. Aaron Peterson (DFL-Appleton): Provides $250,000 a year for two years to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s sustainable ag grant program.
• House File 844, Rep. Ken Tschumper (DFL-LaCrescent): Provides $1.1 million dollars annually to the University of Minnesota for organic research and education.
• House File 845, Rep. David Bly (DFL-Northfield): Provides $150,000 a year of ongoing funding for the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture for alternative livestock research and outreach.
• House File 846, Rep. Al Doty (DFL-Royalton): Provides $250,000 a year for two years to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s organic cost share program.