A Mixed Session for Sustainable Ag, Family Farms

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How did initiatives that benefit sustainable agriculture, family farms and rural communities fare in the 2007 Legislature? Well, it began on a positive note when in February the Agriculture, Rural Economics and Veterans Affairs Committee held two days of hearings focused on sustainable and organic agriculture. The hearings, which were coordinated by Committee Chair Mary Ellen Otremba, involved numerous Land Stewardship Project members and were an important sign that some legislators are taking seriously the growing importance of sustainable and organic agriculture. That positive vibe continued throughout the winter and spring, resulting in some solid legislation. But by the time the final gavel fell, the 2007 Legislature fell short of its full potential to bring about a broad, complete package of positive changes to Minnesota’s food and farm system. Here’s the final skinny:

Funding for MDA sustainable/organic ag programs increased
The Ag Funding Bill contains increases in funding for sustainable and organic agriculture programs at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA), but those increases do not meet the growing demand or make up for past cuts.

Going into the conference committee, the Senate version had healthy funding increases for sustainable and organic agriculture. The House version, under the direction of Chairman Al Juhnke, had substantially less funding for these provisions. Rep. Juhnke was not convinced of the value of these initiatives by the sustainable ag community, and thus the House provision prevailed with only $130,000 of new money for two key sustainable and organic agriculture programs.

This means some critical programs will be under-funded. The MDA’s Organic Cost Share Program was funded at $100,000 per year. This program reimburses organic farmers for a portion or their annual certification costs. The Senate proposed increasing the funding from $50,000 a year to $150,000 a year; the House proposed only $100,000 in annual funding. Organic and sustainable farming groups had asked for $275,000 because of increased demand for the program. During the past year the funds for this program were used up within two months. Rep. Al Doty and Sen. Tony Lourey were the chief sponsors of the funding bills for the organic cost share program.

The Agriculture Bill funds the MDA’s Energy & Sustainable Ag Grant Program/Greenbook Program at $160,000 a year. This program provides grants for sustainable and organic farmers to conduct on-farm demonstration projects and research. The results are then published annually in the nationally-recognized Greenbook. This program creates innovative farmer-driven solutions and facilitates farmer-to-farmer education. The Senate proposed increasing the funding from the current $80,000 a year to $210,000 a year. The House proposed only $160,000 in annual funding. Prior to 2003, the funding level for the Sustainable Agriculture Grant Program for a significant number of years had been in the $200,000-a-year range. Organic and sustainable farming groups had asked for $250,000. Rep. Aaron Peterson and Sen. Jim Vickerman were chief authors for the demonstration grant program legislation.

A shortsighted veto
Governor Tim Pawlenty line-item vetoed key renewable energy provisions in the Ag Funding Bill. Working with Clean Energy Minnesota, which LSP is a member of, Sen. Gary Kubly introduced a proposal that created a comprehensive policy to move Minnesota towards producing renewable energy derived from perennial crops. Research done at the U of M has shown that perennial crops, including native prairie, can produce the most efficient energy output and provide additional environmental benefits in the form of wildlife habitat, carbon sequestration, soil protection and providing a filter to clean up our waters. The Senate position had many of the provisions in Sen. Kubly’s bill. However, as Chair of the House-Senate Conference Committee, Rep. Juhnke worked to block these initiatives. Only two were adopted: $350,000 for MISA to do critical research into perennial crops and a $1 million revolving loan fund for farmers and seed producers to buy equipment to plant perennials and produce perennial seeds. Despite the innovative nature of these initiatives, and the dire need for sustainable energy options, the Governor targeted these provisions with his veto stamp. Rep. Aaron Peterson was the chief sponsor for these provisions in the companion bill to Sen. Kubly’s proposal.

Efforts to weaken local control & circumvent
the Corporate Farm Law defeated

Calls and e-mails from LSP members made a big difference in March when House File 1254, which weakened local control, was pulled from consideration for the rest of the legislative session. Rep. Ken Tschumper played a leadership role in making this happen. He is Vice Chair of the Local Government and Metropolitan Affairs Committee, and a strong advocate for local control. He called a meeting in his office involving the proposers of the bill (building and development interests), as well as those concerned about its impacts on local government, including LSP, Clean Water Action, the Minnesota Environmental Partnership and lobbyists for local governments. Rep. Tschumper led a debate on the bill and the proposers agreed to come up with language to address our concerns. Later in the week they agreed to pull the bill completely.

Another attempt to weaken local control that was sponsored by Sen. Steve Dille didn’t get a hearing in the Senate Agriculture Committee due to strong opposition and Sen. Jim Vickerman’s desire not to undermine local control.

In addition, a last ditch attempt to get around Minnesota’s Corporate Farm Law was defeated. Currently MN statutes 500.221 effectively prohibits foreign companies from owning or leasing Minnesota farmland. This law is critical for meeting the goal of our state’s Corporate Farm Law, which is to “protect the family farm as a basic economic unit, to insure it as the most socially desirable mode of agricultural production, and to enhance and promote the stability and well-being of rural society in Minnesota and the nuclear family.”

This well-financed, last-minute legislative push was mounted to allow a Portuguese-based company to lease farmland in Mower County as part of a wind energy development project. The project developer, Horizon Wind Energy, is currently owned by U.S.-based Goldman Sachs. Goldman Sachs is selling Horizon to the Portuguese company Energias de Portugal. This would put them in violation of our state laws. Instead of restructuring the deal to be in compliance with our laws, backers of the project pushed for an exemption. But calls by LSP members and others during the last hours of the session helped defeat this proposal.

Key leaders in the fight to stop this weakening of the law on the House floor were Representatives Mary Ellen Otremba, David Bly and Ken Tschumper.

Tax credits for beginning farmers fails to pass
An initiative that would help Minnesota’s beginning farmers with access to land passed key committees, but later died on the vine. The bill would have created tax credits for landowners who rent land to beginning farmers and would have been for up to 15 percent of the gross rental income. The initiative would have also made it possible for beginning farmers to receive a state tax credit of $500 towards the cost of participating in a farm business management program. The chief authors of this bill were Rep. Lyle Koenen and Sen. Gary Kubly.

Dairy investment tax credit targeted at larger operations
Early in the session, LSP pushed a proposal that would have provided tax credits to dairy farmers who make improvements to their operations such as pasture development and on-farm processing. But the Tax Bill that passed in the final day of the session only allowed grants to dairy farmers who invest at least $40,000 in improvements on their dairy operation. This provision was put in at the insistence of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. Modest-sized dairy operations that choose to spend less than $40,000 are out. Dairy farms that wish to add value to do pasture development are also not eligible for this credit.

A good provision that helps livestock producers, especially those who have pasture, did make it into the final Tax Bill. It provides a sales tax exemption for livestock fencing, which can be a major expense on pastured farms.

At this point, Governor Pawlenty is threatening to veto the entire Tax Bill, which would eliminate the above provisions.

You can see LSP’s platform for the 2007 session of the Minnesota Legislature here.

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