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Gov. Walz pitches $10 million drought aid plan

Governor asks the legislature to approve drought assistance grants and to replenish revolving farm loan funds, especially for farmers without a federal safety net

ST PAUL, Minn. — Gov. Tim Walz is asking state lawmakers to invest $10 million in helping farmers still reeling from historic drought conditions that hit the state this summer, especially those growers who can't rely on federal safety net programs.

He pitched the plan to reporters who gathered Friday at the Gene and Louise Smallidge Farm south of Cottage Grove, surrounded by leader of Minnesota Farmers Union, Minnesota Farm Bureau and Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen.

"In July and August, we lost 20 dairy farms each month, so we lost 40 dairy farms and the state is going to dip to under 2,000 dairy farms," Commissioner Petersen said.

"Right now, 27 percent of Minnesota pastures are in very poor condition, another 20 percent in poor condition. We saw record numbers of cattle being sold off in northern parts of the state. The clock is ticking."

He said livestock producers and special crop growers are especially vulnerable because they don't have the same insurance options and other federal assistance as a backstop to their losses.

Farmers Union president Gary Wertish said the issue can't wait until the next regular legislative session, so he's hoping the legislature tackles this in a special session in early October. Livestock producers had to buy hay when they could find it after grazing became impossible.

"I’ve been on farms in the summer, where there was no grass in the pasture anymore," Wertish told reporters. "They were already feeding up -- that was in June -- they were already feeding up their winter supply just to make it through."

The proposal includes $5 million for "rapid response grants" for livestock producers and specialty crop growers, who typically won't see as much help from federal government safety net programs. Some examples of eligible costs provided by the governor's office included water tanks, pipeline, water wagons, water hauling, wells, and irrigation equipment.

"Our grants would be up to $5,000 to growers that they would apply for. We would dedicate the first $1 million to specialty crops and to livestock and then see how the applications are coming in," Commissioner Petersen explained.

The other $5 million would be to replenish the Rural Finance Authority's Disaster Recover Loan Program, which can provide zero-interest loans to farmers for revenue losses that aren't covered by crop insurance or other USDA programs.

Janssen Hang, the director and co-founder of the Hmong American Farmers Association, said the relief will be vital for vegetable growers who were rocked by lack of rainfall in key parts of the growing season.

On Friday, Hmong farmers wore rain gear as they worked in the fields at the HAFA farm in Coates, Minn. getting ready for Saturday farmers markets. But Hang pointed out the greenery you see now came very late in the season.

The governor pointed out that Minnesota farmers play an essential role in feeding the rest of the nation and the world, and it's important to keep families on farms to avoid further consolidation of the industry.

"The reason this makes a difference to you personally as a Minnesotan is that we need to keep folks on the land. We need to make sure we have these producers stay here and continue," Walz said.

"None of these programs will make these people whole, but it will help keep them on the land."

Gene Smallidge, who has been farming for 60 years, showed Walz and Petersen the stark difference between corn and soybeans that had been irrigated versus those on the corners of fields that relied solely on rainfall.

The watered corn was 10-feet tall and had full ears, while the other corn plants were stunted and had produced tiny, partial ears of corn. The irrigated beans had turned to a golden brown and looked ready to harvest, while the other beans were stunted and full of leaves that had sprouted due to recent rainfall. 

He said those leaves made it impossible for them to be harvested at this point, but there's a chance some can be salvaged after they dry later in the fall.