Prodded by controversy surrounding a popular local business, Bridgewater Township has moved ahead with long-considered changes to its agritourism ordinance, giving a boost to a fast-growing industry.
The township Board of Supervisors approved the ordinance change at its meeting earlier this month, along with a Conditional Use Permit for Keepsake Cidery. Both the ordinance and Keepsake’s permit are significantly more comprehensive than what they replace. Under the new ordinance, agritourism businesses are limited to 150 people under normal use and up to 250 for special events, which can only be held six times each year. Under Bridgewater’s old ordinance, a “rural events center” would be allowed to host up to 350 patrons for an event, provided it obtained a CUP.
Outside activities are required to be completed within daylight hours, indoor activities before 10 p.m. There are strict limits on noise and sound pollution, though outdoor amplified music can be included in a permit.
Notably, the new ordinance also touches on a number of topics not addressed in the previous ordinance, including food safety and dust regulations. It also includes tighter restrictions on both parking and signage.
Reasons for optimism
John Klockeman, who chairs the township’s Planning Commission, said that Bridgewater’s Comprehensive Plan prioritizes the promotion of “viable and sustainable agriculture,” so it makes sense to promote agritourism as a potential area of growth for the township.
Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism President Nort Johnson, who currently serves as Chair of the Minnesota Association of Convention and Visitors Bureaus, said that agritourism has become an shining star within the tourism industry.
“People like to know where their (food and beverages) come from,” he said. “It provides an experience that can be easily marketed.”
According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture, the economic impact of agritourism tripled from 2002 to 2017. The National Restraurant Association’s 2015 Culinary Forecast showed that the top “food trend” is interest in local, sustainable agriculture.
Keepsake Cidery co-owner Nate Watters said that the growth of agritourism has only continued and increased even as much of the hospitality industry has been devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic, thanks to its ability to provide a family friendly, outdoor experience.
“Interest in agritourism was already very strong, and it’s definitely been magnified during the pandemic as people look to find a safe place to talk with each other,” he said.
Keepsake’s CUP was something of a trailblazer, as the first of its kind issued by the township, one of the few in Rice County to do its own zoning. The initial permit limited the number of cars that could be parked on-site at one time and limited events to weekends from May through December only.
Despite its experimental nature it worked surprisingly well for surprisingly long, eliciting no formal complaints from neighbors until late last year. In response to the complaint, the board decided to take another “bite of the apple,” developing a CUP to address both Keepsake’s needs and neighbor complaints.
Wendy Wustenberg of the Wind Swept Hill Farm & Studio near Farmington has been on the frontlines of promoting agritourism as part of the North Star Farm Tour. Wustenberg helped to found the tour six years ago and sits on the nonprofit’s Board of Directors.
Over the last several years, both crowd sizes and the number of farms included on North Star’s Tour have grown dramatically. Wustenberg said that ordinances like Bridgewater’s highlight the industry’s growing influence.
“It’s a compliment in no small way,” she said. ”It legitimizes (agritourism) as a real professional business.”
Since COVID hit, Wustenberg said the phone has been “ringing off the hook” at local agritourism farms. Each has had to make its own decisions with regard to how many people they can host and Wustenberg has taken a conservative approach, effectively shutting down her farm.
Wustenberg noted that safety was a huge priority for local farms even before COVID hit. After attending a conference held at the University of Minnesota in May of 2019, Wustenberg and North Star began helping local farmers to build hand washing stations.
Implementing those measures has become even more crucial now, but along with responsibility has come great opportunity. With longer treks on hold amid the pandemic, Wustenberg said that a jaunt to a local farm now looks more attractive to many families than ever.
“The demand for getting outside is part of what’s fueled (growing) interest,” she said. “People are appreciating getting into outdoor space … and families with kids love to come back.”
In a normal year, Minnesota Corn Growers Association President Tim Waibel would trade in at least one piece of equipment. However, the state’s nonconformity with the federal tax code could have left him with a large tax bill, convincing him to wait a year before purchasing a new combine.
“We had a new combine ordered and I said if we didn’t get Section 179 fixed, I’m not taking it,” he said. “There’s some extraordinary examples of people getting hooked on this provision.”
Tucked into the bonding bill passed by the Minnesota Legislature earlier this month was a tax provision that is eliciting a huge sigh of relief from area farmers and small business owners.
Passed with bipartisan support, the tax change will bring Minnesota into full conformity with Section 179 of the federal tax code. Under that provision, farmers and small businesses are allowed to deduct the cost of purchasing equipment for business use. The deduction has long been a mainstay of farm country, enabling farmers to afford the latest equipment by deducting the cost of trade-ins. Before 2006, Minnesota allowed farmers and businesses to claim the full deduction concurrently with their federal taxes.
Section 179 was significantly modified by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, passed largely along party lines and signed into law by President Donald Trump. Under that bill, the ability to defer taxable gains on “like-kind” property was eliminated.
To offset that change, the law included two major tax reduction provisions, providing a 100% first-year “bonus depreciation” tax deduction and doubling the maximum deduction from $500,000 to $1 million and phaseout cap from $2 to $2.5 million. Minnesota’s 2019 tax bill brought the state into conformity with the “like-kind” provision but not the expansion of bonus depreciation. As a result, Minnesota farmers and small businesses suddenly found themselves facing sizable tax bills on recently purchased equipment.
Waibel noted that under Minnesota law, farm equipment is not normally taxed. However, the lack of Section 179 left farmers getting hit with large tax bills on their equipment.
Now, farmers will finally be able to claim their full benefit in line with the federal tax code. Owatonna Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism President Brad Meier has noted that most neighboring states already offered the full deduction, putting Minnesota at a competitive disadvantage.
Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism President Nort Johnson, echoed Meier’s comments. While grateful that the legislature has finally acted, Johnson said he doesn’t understand why the fix didn’t come sooner, when the state wasn’t staring at a massive deficit.
“Fixing this will improve our competitiveness around the state with regard to goods and services,” he said. “We’re very happy this is finally going to be reconciled, but it was bothersome that it wasn’t taken care of sooner while the state was sitting on a $1.5 billion surplus.”
Locally, both DFL and Republican legislators have touted their support for the change. With just a week to go until every seat in the Minnesota legislature is on the ballot, both sides were eager to tout their party’s efforts to get it enacted.
Sen. John Jasinski, R-Faribault, said that the measure had passed largely due to Republican persistence. He laid the failure of legislators to get a deal done sooner at the feet of his DFL colleagues, saying they’d used it as a “bargaining chip” in negotiations.
“We (Republicans) really wanted to get it done, especially with so many small businesses hurting from COVID,” he said. “It’s not been pushed by the Democrat Party much if at all.”
Rep. Todd Lippert, DFL-Northfield, told a somewhat different story. Lippert pointed out that the DFL-controlled House had passed legislation to ensure full conformity last year, but that it had failed to be included in the final tax bill.
“I was glad to support it in the final bonding bill,” Lippert said. “We’ve heard from farmers and the Chamber that this was a top priority.”
Rice County Commissioner Jeff Docken, a farmer himself, noted that while farmers may not rush out to buy a new piece of equipment, it will provide key savings to a local farm economy still recovering from years of trade strife and poor harvests.
“It contributes to the farm economy, and the economy in general,” he said.
However, Rice County Farmers Union President Steven Read suggested that the timing of the law isn’t coincidental. By enacting it at a time when the farm economy is struggling, Read said that lawmakers have effectively managed to minimize the provision’s cost.
“I think one reason they felt it could be done is there isn’t a lot of new equipment being purchased now,” he said. “It doesn’t help the larger farm crisis, but it will help put farmers in a position to cashflow.”
Farmers aren’t the only ones to benefit from the tax law change. Daikin Applied Vice President of Global Sales and Marketing Al Ward said that for many of his company’s customers, Section 179 can provide an “unbelievable” amount of savings.
“There’s really not enough people that know about this,” Ward said. “It’s a fantastic piece of legislation.”
Ward said that most of the customers he’s worked with have not been from Minnesota, so the lack of conformity here hasn’t come into play. Now that Minnesota conforms with federal law, he’s optimistic that Minnesota businesses may be able to afford needed upgrades.
“This will be very, very helpful for people who have to invest heavily in capital equipment, be they farmers or manufacturers,” he said.
A building in northwest Faribault will soon have new meaning to area residents who are food insecure.
Last week, the Northfield Community Action Center signed the lease for the space at 1400 Cannon Circle, which will eventually house a choice model food shelf in Faribault.
Natalie Ginter, Healthy Community Initiative Board member, was instrumental in identifying the Cannon Circle site as a potential location. Ginter also helped the collaborative team working on the project to connect with funding sources.
The building, located as part of the industrial park that houses Charter Spectrum, will provide about 30-by-100 feet of food shelf space. Anika Rychner, program director of CAC, said half of the space will house refrigeration and storage and the food shelf itself will occupy the other half.
“It’s on the same side as the frontage road, which is incredible because that’s where all the Growing Up Healthy staff out of Faribault are officed,” said Sandy Malecha, senior director of Northfield Healthy Community Initiative. “Being more on the north end of town, it also makes it more accessible to many lower income families.”
Following the SuperShelf model the CAC implements in Northfield, the finished food shelf will provide a variety of healthy and culturally relevant foods that meet the needs of city’s diverse community in a location near many of its potential clients.
“The SuperShelf model works really well for that, but how it looks and feels will be up to the community,” Rychner said. “The CAC is just so excited to walk alongside the community of Faribault and to support this work.”
The need for a new food shelf in Faribault became apparent in the spring, after the Faribault Food Shelf closed. But incidentally, a solution began unfolding a couple months prior as a new collaborative effort took form.
Recognizing a hole in food provision during the coronavirus pandemic, Growing Up Healthy and Faribault Youth Investment partnered with over 15 area entities to create hunger relief solutions for local families in March. The collaborative team set up mobile food distribution sites at various locations and continued that effort after the Faribault Food Shelf closed. Over the summer, these mobile food shelves helped feed over 1,000 unique households.
To better gauge the specific food needs of clients and decide on the food shelf model, the collaborative team released surveys. Over 200 Faribault residents provided input or attended virtual listening sessions. Based on the input collected, the team determined a combination choice food shelf model and mobile distribution service would best serve the needs of the Faribault community.
In August, the Rice County Board of Commissioners approved $125,500 in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding for the collaborative team to cover costs of a new food shelf in Faribault. The Northfield Community Action Center, which has served northern Rice County communities for decades, will serve as the lead partner in the collaboration.
The Faribault Diversity Coalition has stored the Faribault Food Shelf’s remaining products for the past couple months, and Rychner said the CAC has begun moving products out of the space.
Even after the physical space begins storing food, Malecha said the CAC will continue providing mobile distribution to clients. Surveys show a lack of transportation prevents some families from accessing food shelves.
Still to come, the CAC will hire two staff for the shelf: a food access program coordinator and support specialist. The CAC wants to hire bilingual and local staff members in these positions. In the interim, Faribault Youth Investment Executive Director Becky Ford, Growing Up Healthy Director Natalia Marchan and Hosanna Church Campus Coordinator Steph Helkenn are working together to coordinate the food distribution needs for the fall.
The CAC will lead the build-out at 1400 Cannon Circle, working with partners experienced in the area of building out food shelves. How soon the project begins depends on a few factors, like the contractor’s availability. The contractor has been in touch with the CAC on a weekly basis, and Rychner anticipates work to begin early 2021 to allow for a spring opening.
Following the SuperShelf model the CAC implements in Northfield, the finished food shelf will provide a variety of healthy and culturally relevant foods that meet the needs of the city's diverse community in a location near many of its potential clients. However, until the spread of COVID-19 slows down, clients will receive their food boxes during mobile distributions rather than browsing in person. Even after the pandemic, clients may still use the mobile food drive option.
Even with about a week to go before Election Day, area GOP leaders say they don’t expect U.S. Senate candidate Jason Lewis’ time off the campaign trail to negatively affect his chances at the polls.
Lewis was rushed to the hospital Monday morning with severe abdominal pain and underwent emergency surgery.
“Following tests and examination, doctors determined that he is suffering from a severe internal hernia, a diagnosis which they indicated is life-threatening if not treated quickly,” his campaign manager Tom Szymanski said in a statement.
By 1:30 p.m. Monday, Lewis’ campaign announced the surgery was successful and minimally invasive. He is expected to be released in the next couple of days.
Lewis is challenging Democratic U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, who tweeted on Monday morning that she and her husband wish Lewis “a successful surgery and a speedy recovery.”
Despite being removed from the campaign trail several times throughout October for possible exposure to COVID-19, the Rice County Republicans feel confident that his win is already secured for the area.
“Personally, I think he’s a great person and I’m sorry that he can’t get out and campaign, I feel badly about that,” Rice County Republican Chair Kathy Dodds said. “But I think he’s drawn a very clear line between himself and Tina Smith, so I don’t think it’s really going to hurt him the campaign.”
Dodds feels Lewis is sure to win Rice County because he’s made himself easily accessible to constituents in the area. In June, Dodds hosted a “Pizza and Politics” event at her home where Lewis interacted with 70 people for several hours as a part of his campaign.
“People remember him from the radio and that he’s straightforward and speaks his mind, we appreciate that about him,” Dodds said, adding that she doesn’t feel any of his time off the campaign trail negatively impacted his run for the Senate seat. “For a lot of us, we didn’t even realize he was out of the picture.”
In Steele County, Republican Party leaders also feeling confident about Lewis’ campaign efforts thus far despite his health obstacle.
“You never really know until the numbers are in, but I certainly think he’s going to do really well here,” said Pam Seaser, co-chair of the Steele County Republicans. “Steele County is known for being a stronghold for Republicans and conservatives. He has spent the time here that he has needed to, but also he needs to go to places across the state that could possibly be on the fence yet.”
Seaser said she is specifically impressed with how transparent the former congressman has been throughout his campaign, including informing the public of his surgery on Monday. She added that she has no concerns that Lewis will continue with his transparency leading up to Election Day Nov. 3.
Lewis represented Minnesota’s 2nd Congressional District in the U.S. House from 2017-19. The district covers the south Twin Cities metro area and contains all of Scott, Dakota, Goodhue and Wabasha counties. It also contains part of southern Washington County and a portion of northern and eastern Rice County, including the city of Northfield.
In the last month, Lewis’ health while on the campaign trail has made the news in relation to COVID-19. In a one-week time span, the candidate had come into close contact with someone who tested positive for the coronavirus. Though the second individual was not identified by the campaign for privacy reasons, Lewis’ first self-quarantine following the positive COVID-19 diagnosis of President Donald Trump days after Lewis had greeted the president at the airport in Minneapolis.