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New bill would incentivize greener farming practices
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For years, local soil and water conservation districts have been working alongside nonprofits like the Cannon River Watershed Partnership to help farmers implement conservation practices in a financially feasible manner.

While farmers are often eager to plant cover crops or implement practices such as conservation tillage, up front costs can be daunting. Margins have been small in recent years, leading many farmers to stick with the tried and true unless they are incentivized.

Mike Peterson, who alongside his wife Kay, won the Outstanding Conservationist of the Year Award from the Rice Soil and Water Conservation District, said that the risks inherently associated with farming make farmers even less inclined to try new practices.

“In ag, what we do is basically put all of our annual paychecks out there on the lawn and hope Mother Nature treats us well enough that we make it,” he said. “How much of your paycheck are you going to bet on something that might work — or might not?”

A potential solution, which Peterson supports is the new Soil Healthy Farming Program proposed by Rep. Todd Lippert, DFL-Northfield. The proposal would extend sizable incentives to farmers in exchange for implementing soil healthy farming practices.

Richland Township farmer Jim Purfeerst expressed support for providing grants to help farmers implement soil healthy practices.. A newly minted member of the Rice County Board of Commissioners, Purfeerst previously served on the Rice SWCD and has implemented soil conservation practices on his farm.

“I think it sounds like a fabulous idea,” he said. “We’ve been planting cover crops on our farm for years.”

Lippert’s proposal was approved in committee on a bipartisan vote, but has yet to gain a Republican co-sponsor. However, the Senate version is backed by Independent Sen. David Tomassoni, of Chisholm, who caucuses with Republicans.

Under the proposed legislation, farmers could receive up to $15,000 in grants for soil healthy practices, $12,500 in direct payments for cropping practices and $17,500 in direct payments for managed rotational grazing. Funding would come through local Soil and Water Conservation districts rather than directly from the state. SWCDs would be expected to prioritize smaller farmers as well as socially disadvantaged farmers, as highlighted by the state’s Emerging Farmers Working Group.

Peterson said that it’s important for agriculture to move toward greener practices as the world grapples with climate change. While local crop farmers don’t produce nearly as much pollution as some ag sectors, better soil practices could help farmers sequester more carbon.

“As far as climate change is concerned, I know (ag) is going to get a lot of the blame,” he said. “I’d like to see us be part of the solution too.”

In addition to funding, Lippert’s bill sets a series of targets for the implementation of soil healthy practices. Half of all farmers would be asked to use soil healthy practices by 2030, and all of them would need to do so by 2035.

“Our hope is to really scale the program up,” said Lippert. “This would really help to make our soil more resilient.”

Peterson said he’s supportive of the first goal, but more hesitant of the second. Instead of setting such a lofty, aspirational goal, he’d prefer the state set a target that is less specific or at least more realistic.

“When you say 100%, that’s pretty restrictive,” he said. “It will be very hard to achieve.”

Rice SWCD District Manager Steve Pahs said he likes the concept of the bills, and that more funding would be helpful. While farmers in Rice County are adding cover crops at a strong pace, more funding could help further progress to be made.

Pahs added that he believes soil health programs should remain voluntary. His organization, he said, has built strong voluntary relationships with farmers based on trust and respect which have enabled big changes.

With new leadership in Washington, D..C, Steele County farmer Dan Deml said he expects soil health and conservation in general to gain renewed focus. By providing funding and helping farmers to gradually move toward soil conservation practices, Deml said that expected changes can be made in a farmer-friendly manner.

“I would say that any kind of a voluntary practice with incentives is more easily accepted than mandates,” he added.

Stage appears set the for council approval of body-worn cameras
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Northfield city councilors appear ready to body-worn cameras for the city’s 24 sworn police officers.

The council considered approving a body camera policy during a March 2 meeting, but opted to wait until final budget numbers are available. The council could approve a four-year approximately $125,000 contract during a March 16 meeting. The body cameras are expected to cost approximately $1,000 per officer on an annual basis.

While other Rice County law enforcement agencies use the cameras, Northfield’s Police Department hasn’t had funding for them approved, despite repeated requests. This year, as the department and Police Chief Mark Elliott seek to have body cameras in place, Elliott is also asking for $40,000 for evidence/IT support, and the potential for a half- or full-time hire.

The council has contemplated the idea of adding body cameras over the previous months. During a February City Council meeting, members of a citizen-led police policy review task force unanimously recommended the department implement body cameras.

Councilor Suzie Nakasian, who in previous meetings indicated that she did not support the plan, now says she does, following the task force’s recommendation. Though she said she still doesn’t believe body cameras are needed, Nakasian added that introducing the devices is a good “proactive” measure.

The cameras, Elliot says, will increase community confidence in the work of police officers, instill trust in resident-police encounters, and allow for evidence to be recorded for later review in prosecutions, complaints and supervision.

Most of the footage taken from body cameras is protected information under the Minnesota Data Practices Act. Body cameras will be required to be used in any police enforcement action.

Body cameras “have become the norm” and are mandated in several states. The cities of Farmington, Rosemount, Hastings, Red Wing, Faribault and the Rice County Sheriff’s Office all have the cameras.

Councilor George Zuccolotto expressed disapproval of the plan, saying the way the policy was presented is “very troubling” and included a lack of willingness to accept public input. Though he acknowledged that body cameras are standard practices across the region, he called on fellow councilors to look beyond that and possibly see how they could rework police operations in a community known for its progressive politics.

To Zuccolotto, body cameras didn’t help to prevent the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis Police Department custody last May, an incident that led to much debate about the role of police officers and accusations that law enforcement has been involved in ongoing racial bias against minorities. He also expressed concern that the council would have “no say” in how to change the body camera policy and the Police Department’s ongoing work with public safety policy and training company Lexipol leads to police “militarization” and privatization.

Though Councilor Jessica Peterson White said “no one at the meeting” thought body cameras would address any existing issues with the Police Department and admitted she had been initially skeptical of the plan, she called the devices “an important tool for police accountability.”

She said her previous concerns about potential civil rights violations when police are wearing body cameras have been addressed after “robust discussions,” and cited the support of body cameras from the American Civil Liberties Union and Black Lives Matter.

Fellow Councilor Jami Reister, echoing Peterson White’s statement about the need for police transparency and accountability, said though police have come under deserved scrutiny around the nation, she said NPD “is rooted in the community” and takes a good approach to serving the city.

Ness agreed.

“This is a really important move for us as a community,” he said.

Child safety seat technicians underutilized despite important role

One of the most exciting days in a new parent’s life is the day they get to load up their bundle of love and finally bring them home from the hospital.

A daunting obstacle, however, is how to safely do that.

Learning the proper use and installation of a car seat is one of the most vital pieces of safety when it comes to transporting children from newborn to 4-years-old. For new parents or anyone whose child has outgrown their current seat, that task can be unnerving and leave guardians wondering where they can go for help.

Car seat safety technicians are available in both Steele and Rice counties, though they aren’t being utilized as much as they would like to see.

“I have put out quite a few notices out there that I’m available for one-on-one visits to answer questions about car seats or want to go through a car seat inspection,” said Investigator Kari Woltman with the Steele County Sheriff’s Office, who serves as the office’s child safety seat technician.

“No one has been calling to look into this option, but I think it’s because a lot of these families just don’t know what resources are out there or where to turn. You get that initial check from the hospital staff before you leave, but as the child gets older and is ready to move on to the next car seat they don’t know where to go.”

There isn’t a lot of education that’s readily available after the initial newborn stage, she said. The education is out there, but families don’t know where to find it.

While Woltman is available to help at the Law Enforcement Center in Owatonna and there are a couple child safety seat technicians at Steele County Public Health, that’s where the help ends. In Rice County, there are only two licensed child safety seat technicians to cover the entire area, both located at Rice County Public Health.

Neither county is currently able to provide car seat clinics either, a problem that Rice County Toward Zero Deaths Coordinator Kathy Cooper said is particularly heart-wrenching.

“We used to have a car seat clinic at the Northfield Hospital a few years ago, but they didn’t have anyone on staff that had the training anymore and they had to close it down,” Cooper said. “Years ago we also had people at the police departments who were trained technicians and right now I know the Faribault Fire Department is looking into how they can train a firefighter, but currently Rice County Public Health is the only place to have a car seat inspection.”

Cooper added there is also one licensed technician at Faribault Early Childhood Family Education.

During a car seat inspection, Woltman said the technicians will show step-by-step how to properly install a car seat, uninstall it and then have the family install it in front of them to ensure it is done correctly. The technician will then check over the seat to confirm that it is secure and ready for the road.

“It’s really a good education session for the families,” Woltman said. “I can go through everything with them to make sure they understand it all from the height and weight requirements to rear versus front facing, even what to do with a car seat after you’ve been in an accident.”

Woltman said car seat clinics were held at the Owatonna Hospital in the past, but that resources have since dwindled and they have been unable to hold one for a number of years. She said at this time, she is only aware of clinics in Rochester and Eagle Lake that are attempting to start up again on a regular schedule after briefly pausing for COVID-19.

“There have been some conversation about getting them started in Steele County again, but for now what we have is me and whoever is still licensed at Public Health,” Woltman said.

Cooper said not having enough technicians and clinics in the area is concerning due to the fact that vehicles carry the “most precious cargo” anyone could have.

“Having an appropriate car seat is the most important thing,” Cooper said. “If a child isn’t properly belted and the seat isn’t properly secured in the car there is going to be injuries in the case of an accident, it’s as simple as that. We want to protect our children and we know this works.”

Over the years, Cooper said it is reassuring that there have been massive efforts throughout Minnesota in car seat safety. She said for a number of years the state recorded zero crash fatalities in the age group of 0-4, crediting car seat clinics and an aggressive child passenger safety state law in 1982, requiring all children under the age of four to be properly restrained in a federally approved child car seat. In 2009 another state law was passed that required children ages 4-7 to be in a booster seat.

While those numbers haven’t remained at zero, the Minnesota Department of Public Safety reports that 87% of children ages 0-7 who were involved in motor vehicle crashes and were properly restrained in the past five years sustained minimal or no injuries.

“It shows in the statistics that all the educations, the clinics and the strong law are working,” Cooper said. “We need to keep that up.”