Ag budget is a step forward for greener farming

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

The Minnesota Legislature has plenty of disagreements on the issues, big and small, that can make passing big legislation difficult. But in recent years, at least, there’s one issue where they’ve found consensus more often than not: support for the state’s farms and farmers.

That might not be surprising, given that Minnesota has the fifth-largest agricultural economy in the nation. With jobs involving farming and food so plentiful around the state, Legislators have plenty of incentive to support the sector – part of the reason that one of the few bills that passed in 2022 was a supplemental budget bill for agriculture.

From an environmental perspective, that kind of consensus has been a double-edged sword. On the one hand, MEP has been happy to see bipartisan support for the clean crop-focused Forever Green Initiative, drought relief legislation, and the 2015 buffer bill. On the other hand, there’s also been bipartisan opposition to changing Minnesota’s pesticide laws, setting new restrictions on factory farms, or challenging the dominance of ethanol, which uses a third of the state’s corn crop.

Science shows us that Minnesota’s agricultural status quo isn’t working for our land, water, or health. Harmful nitrate has built up in our groundwater, vast numbers of our lakes and streams are too polluted for fishing or swimming, pollinating species are in peril, and agriculture is now our second largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. To have a chance at solving these problems, we need our Legislature to think forward about farming. We need them to start supporting a better system: one where we support local foods with a focus on smaller and emerging farmers, prioritize restoring our natural resources and protecting people and pollinators from harmful chemicals.

We’re pleased to report that this year, the Legislature passed an agriculture budget bill that will help move us in the right direction. Here are some of the key priorities MEP was proud to see cross the finish line:

Pesticides and pollinators

It’s common knowledge that pesticides are harmful to pollinators, contributing to a massive decline in creatures like bees, beetles, and butterflies. But perhaps less well known is that many are dangerous to people, especially those con

taining PFAS – forever chemicals linked to cancer, pre-eclampsia, and other serious illnesses. Through these pesticides containing PFAS – more than 2,000 registered in Minnesota – chemicals are being sprayed across the land, creating yet another avenue for them to enter our bodies and threaten our health.

This health threat is unacceptable for the people of Minnesota, and MEP is encouraged that the agriculture bill includes language allowing the Department of Agriculture to restrict pesticides with intentionally-added PFAS starting in 2032. That’s not as aggressive  a timeline as we’d hoped, and the provision includes carve-outs for questionable “unavoidable uses” of PFAS. But it’s a step in the right direction, and we will advocate for stronger language in law and strict control over these pesticides by the Ag Department.

The bill also includes $800,000 funding for a pollinator research account, which would help to identify pesticide impacts, study pollinator habitat, and find solutions to protect these vital species. Going forward, the account is slated to receive $100,000 per year in base funding.

Soil and water

Over the past decade, MEP has made it a key priority to win state funding for the Forever Green Initiative, a UMN program that develops new “continuous living cover” crops that provide the best of both worlds: food, fuel and other products that farmers can sell on the one hand, and benefits to our resources and ecosystems on the other. Their projects range from crops like perennial wheatgrass (also known as Kernza), which is already used in cereals and a particularly delicious pancake mix, to winter camelina, which is highly efficient at producing natural oil that could be used in bioplastics and aviation fuel. These crops’ roots help farmland hold in more water and nutrients, reducing erosion and water pollution. Many of these crops also provide food and habitat for pollinators and other wildlife. And some can be grown in rotation in the same year with corn and soybeans.

In addition to funding Forever Green, we need to ensure that these crops have viable supply chains and markets to ensure their continued planting. That’s why MEP supports Continuous Living Cover Grants to Minnesota businesses to help them build the infrastructure they need to process and sell Forever Green’s regenerative crops.

We’re excited that the agriculture bill includes an extra $344,000 in base funding (funding that recurs year after year) for Forever Green that compliments another $6 million from the Clean Water Fund, an increase of $2 million from the last budget cycle. And the bill includes $500,000 for Continuous Living Cover Grants.

In addition, the bill encourages farmers to adopt soil healthy practices – methods of managing the land that build soil that better stores water and nutrients. Topsoil is a valuable resource that we must steward wisely, so these practices should become much more commonplace. We appreciate the bill’s inclusion of $1.3 million for this budget and $639,000 in base funding going forward to help farmers adopt soil healthy methods.

Supporting new farmers

A rule of (green) thumb is that more farmers on the land tends to mean more opportunities for regenerative farming. There are plenty of Minnesotans, including those from immigrant groups and communities of color, who would like to farm the land and share sustainable  practices that would make a positive impact on the soil and water. But the consolidation of agriculture over the last few decades – putting more and more land in fewer hands and creating other barriers to entry – have made it difficult for emerging farmers to get their start.

MEP supports three programs to help address this challenge. The Emerging Farmers Working Group helps to identify the barriers that these farmers face and recommend programs to the Legislature and Department of Agriculture to fix them. The Emerging Farmers Office works directly with emerging farmers to help them navigate those barriers. And the Farmland Down Payment Assistance Grant Program provides funds for emerging farmers to purchase their first farm.

We’re pleased that the Agriculture Omnibus bill supports these programs: $1.5 million for the Emerging Farmers Office and $2 million for Down Payment Assistance. It also repealed the sunset for the Emerging Farmers Working Group, allowing that group to continue its important work.

Small and local farms

Many farmers are using sustainable or otherwise healthy practices to grow vegetables and raise livestock, but they depend on strong local markets and help with processing their products in order to prosper. MEP appreciates measures in the Agriculture omnibus like:

  • $2.3 million for the Farm to School program, which helps bring local and fresh foods from Minnesota farms to nearby schools and early childhood education centers.
  • $2.5 million in financial support for small meat, egg, and dairy processors and training.
  • $4 million support for Urban Youth Agriculture Education or urban agriculture community development, helping provide urban youth and other residents better understand farming and participate in urban agriculture.

In the long run, MEP will continue to advocate for transformational change to our food and farming systems that better serves our people and planet. These steps forward are encouraging signs that at least some Legislators are looking forward to a healthier landscape, a better balance between nature and food production, and a greener Minnesota.

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