Over the last couple of years, Minnesota — and the rest of the nation — has been hit by what’s referred to as the “CBD boom,” the growing trend of farmers ditching their former crops for hemp as consumers continue to reach for anything and everything infused with CBD.
Two shops that exclusively sell CBD products opened near downtown Owatonna within the last month, offering products that promise to promote better sleep, less pain and a high-quality experience. One shop in particular, Big Dream Organics, is on a mission to educate customers the chemistry and benefits of CBD while working in collaboration with local growers.
“When I started using CBD, I was having a lot of mixed results from products I was buying online, which was kind of the only way to get it even just a year ago,” said Jerry Collins, who was looking for ways to get a better night’s sleep and hoping the CBD would be his answer. “I started looking around and doing research on the products trying to find the best stuff that was clean and included third-party testing, and there wasn’t a lot of accurate representation on stuff that actually worked.”
Realizing there was a gap in his hometown, Collins decided to go into business and the fill that need, opening Big Dream Organics in Albert Lea in May 2019. Originally, Collins and his partner, Angie Obermeyer, figured they would “just see what happens” with that first store, excited to see that there was definitely a demand in their community.
“We have a lot of great customers and we get new ones every week,” Collins said about the Albert Lea location. “We had been talking to one of the young men that grows for us on a small family farm outside of New Richland, and he said that nobody was really doing this yet in Owatonna and that it would be a good market and place to grow.”
Originally planning on opening in April, Collins and Obermeyer temporarily put their new Owatonna store on hold due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Taking the opportunity to arrange their building exactly how they envisioned, the pair finally opened doors in the middle of June, providing a variety of CBD products, including two Minnesota-based lines.
Lance Perkins, the grower and owner of SouthernSota, said that working with local retailers has been one of the most effective tools in fighting the stigma that CBD and hemp products tend to have working against them.
“This is not dangerous,” said Perkins, who has extensive experience in horticulture, growing vegetables for more than 10 years before switching over to hemp. “It’s important to allow the public to know that there is a very approachable way to this plant that isn’t scary, and it’s CBD.”
According to Collins, the difference between hemp and marijuana is the level of Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol or THC the plant contains. The federal government recognizes anything with more than three-tenths of a percent of THC as marijuana, and anything less as hemp.
“What you’re left with is the non-intoxicating substance,” Collins said. “The government won’t go so far as to say that there are health benefits, though, which is one of the things the state has been very particular on is making claims of what [CBD] can and cannot do.”
CBD, or cannabidiol, a chemical found in marijuana and hemp, does not produce the high associated with marijuana. And while there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence and manufacturers touting their CBD-infused products, only one product with CBD oil has been approved by the U.S.Food and Drug Administration. Currently, research on CBD is very limited.
For Collins and Obermeyer, what CBD has done for them is helped them with sleep and relieved them of pain — pain that Collins admits he didn’t know he had until it was gone.
“It’s my go to anti-inflammatory,” Obermeyer said.
With just a little more than two weeks under their belt in Owatonna, Collins said that his goal for Big Dream Organics is to provide consumers with safe, locally grown products and to educate them on what CBD can do for each individual.
“Our drive is to be the place to go in southern Minnesota and northern Iowa for education and information on cannabis,” Collins said. “I just want to give anybody who wants the opportunity to try products made from the cannabis plant, to give them the opportunity based on the last year of my own life and being very comfortable with it, and to see their reaction when they come back after a positive change.”
Collins said that he feels lucky to have found a home in Owatonna, noting that the community has been both welcoming and open minded to a product that originally they could only find in gas stations, smoke shops and less well-traveled stores.
“The Owatonna area has a really awesome small business environment along with some larger players in the industrial sector,” Collins said. “It’s a good population base to work with, and I really think that once people try a real quality product and have that experience that they will come back — and they always do.”
While local municipalities are just figuring out how to spend millions of dollars in one-time funding from the federal government, area school districts have already made plans for how they intend to spend their allocations.
Both pools of funding come from the CARES Act, passed toward the end of March. At over $2 trillion, the bipartisan COVID-19 economic relief plan was the largest in U.S. history, totaling more than 10% of the nation’s gross domestic product. Part of that was $150 billion in relief for local municipalities and an additional $13 billion allocated specifically to school districts. Lawmakers designed the funding to help local units of government weather the economic storm.
Municipalities didn’t receive their funding until recently, because the state government was tasked with deciding how roughly $850 million in funds should be allocated, and Gov. Tim Walz struggled to reach an agreement with the Republican-majority state Senate.
Of the three major cities in Rice and Steele counties, Faribault probably has the clearest idea of how it will spend its CARES Act dollars. City staff have proposed creating a Small Business Relief Fund and stocking it with an initial $500,000 in funding, with the possibility of adding another $500,000.
When it comes to local cities, Northfield will receive about $1.5 million, Faribault approximately $1.8 million and Owatonna approximately $1.9 million. Most other area cities only qualify for $25 per person in assistance, and thus are receiving much less. The third largest city in Rice County, Lonsdale, will receive the most when it comes to small cities, at just over $100,000. Other recipients include Blooming Prairie with about $50,000, Dundas with around $40,000, Medford at just over $30,000 and Morristown at about $25,000.
Businesses with up to five employees could apply for up to $5,000 in relief, while those with six to 50 employees could get up to $10,000. The proposal is slated to be discussed by the Council at its Tuesday work session, with passage possible next week.
Owatonna and Northfield haven’t developed such significant plans yet. Northfield City Administrator Ben Martig noted that an item on the Council’s agenda will enable the city to formally receive the funds, with further discussion slated until next week.
For its part, Owatonna City Administrator Kris Busse said that the city is still working to develop programs in accordance with federal guidelines. She suggested that the city would likely consider investing in cleaning supplies as well as starting a business assistance program, like the one proposed in Faribault.
As it has more than 65,000 residents to tend to, Rice County is the region’s largest recipient of CARES Act Funding. Rice will receive more than $8 million in funding according to the state’s formula, while Steele County will receive close to $4.5 million.
The funds to school districts were allocated on a much different basis, with more funding allocated to districts with a greater number students eligible for free and reduced-price lunches. As a result, Faribault Public Schools received more than twice as much funding as Northfield schools.
Although the two districts are close geographically, they have dramatic socioeconomic differences. With just 26% of students eligible to receive free or reduced-price lunches, Northfield is well below the statewide average of 37%.
By contrast, more than 60% of Faribault students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. Just one Minnesota county, Mahnomen, which sits entirely within the White Earth Reservation, has a higher rate of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches.
In total, Northfield School District will receive about $380,000 in funding, while Faribault will receive more than $900,000. However, a portion of Faribault’s funding remains unallocated, and a very small slice will go to Bethlehem Academy, Divine Mercy Catholic School and Faribault Lutheran School.
While Faribault and Northfield may be on opposite ends of the spectrum, Owatonna falls somewhere in the middle when it comes to socioeconomic conditions. Thus, the district will receive $625,000 in funding, according to Superintendent Jeff Elstad.
Elstad, Faribault Superintendent Todd Sesker and Northfield Superintendent Matt Hillmann said they primarily plan to spend those funds primarily on increasing student accessibility and safety in the upcoming school year.
For both Northfield and Faribault, that means completing the districts’s mission to provide every student with an iPad. Currently, some elementary school students don’t have a tablet of their own, which has disadvantaged some students during distance learning.
Hillmann said that the district will also spend a portion of the money to buy Wi-Fi hotspots for students in need and enable teachers to place a call from their school account. Both initiatives could help students be more productive in any potential distance learning environment.
The districts are also exploring whether some of the funding could go to covering expenses incurred over the last few months, as districts implemented emergency measures to ensure that children from low-income families remained well fed and taken care of.
Under guidance released by the Minnesota Department of Education last month, Districts have been asked to prepare for three different potential scenarios for next school year — a distance learning model, traditional in class model with protections, and a hybrid of the two.
While it’s too early to know when exactly each model might need to be used, both districts are using a portion of their CARES Act fund to ensure they’re prepared. That means stocking up on supplies and planning for increased use of digital learning.
Though it may be unprecedented in size, Hillmann said that the funding isn’t likely to be enough to shield the district from funding shortfalls. That’s because Northfield, like other districts throughout the region, relies heavily on state aid to cover expenses.
When the pandemic and accompanying business closures abruptly reversed a decade of economic growth in Minnesota and across the nation, a $1.3 billion projected budget surplus was turned into a $2.2 billion deficit almost overnight.
That’s a particular challenge for the state, which can’t borrow to cover general expenses. Legislators could tap into the state’s rainy day fund, which was created in the wake of the 2008 financial crash and grew over the last decade.
However, the fund totals just $2.4 billion, barely enough to cover one year of the sizable projected deficit. Should the pandemic-induced economic downturn last much longer, legislators would have to consider spending cuts and/or tax increases.
At the same time, districts have played a critically important role during the pandemic, supporting low-income families by providing everything from meals from children to much needed childcare for kids of essential workers.
Hillmann said the district certainly doesn’t regret implementing those programs, but they have come at a significant financial cost. Describing the CARES Act funding as a “minor measure,” he said it won’t begin to cover those costs let alone make up for years of stagnant funding.
“The CARES Act is a stopgap measure, and it’s not even a very good one,” he said. “Our revenues still don’t cover our costs.”
Hillmann said the issue long predates COVID, as the state has provided an increase to the per-pupil basic formula just five times in the last 27 years. While the district has managed to avoid cuts for a decade, they’re back on the table for the 2021-22 school year.
Unless the state or federal governments are able to provide additional funding, Sesker warned that Faribault will have to look at cuts as well. Given the dire economic situation and tight state budget, he said he’s not particularly optimistic that the district will see additional dollars from the state.
Convicted killer Lois Riess has returned to Minnesota where she’s expected to stand trial for the March 2018 murder of her husband, David Riess, in the couple’s rural Blooming Prairie home.
Riess, 58, is currently being held at the Steele County Jail. Riess arrived at the Owatonna facility Friday, according to jail records.
Dodge County officials sought to have Riess extradited from Florida in December, expecting the process would take a couple of months. But when the coronavirus pandemic closed Minnesota courts, the process was put on hold. When courts reopened last month, the extradition process resumed.
Riess was indicted by a Dodge County grand jury in May 2019 on charges of first-degree premeditated murder, which carries a life sentence without the possibility of parole. No details of David Riess’ slaying or evidence authorities have against Lois Riess were included in the indictment.
On March 27, 2018, Riess was charged with theft for reportedly taking money out of her dead husband’s account without consent and for using David Riess’ debit card after his death.
Authorities tracked Riess from Minnesota to the Diamond Jo Casino in Iowa, where she was caught on surveillance cameras. From there, she traveled to Florida where she has been serving a life sentence for the April 2018 shooting death of Pamela Hutchinson, of Fort Meyers. Hutchinson was targeted, prosecutors alleged, because the women shared similar features and Riess wanted to assume Hutchinson’s identity while on the lam.
Riess was captured by federal marshals April 19, 2018 in South Padre Island, Texas.
On Dec. 17, 2019, Riess pleaded guilty in Florida to first-degree murder with a firearm, grand theft of a motor vehicle, grand theft and criminal use of personal identification information of a deceased individual for Hutchinson’s death. Prosecutors withdrew the possibility of the death penalty on the murder charge as part of the plea deal, a move Riess’ family supported.
Following Riess’ plea, Rich Montecalvo, Florida chief assistant state attorney, told the Associated Press that if Riess stands trial and is convicted in Minnesota, corrections departments in both states will determine where she’s incarcerated.
“Frankly I don’t care,” he said. “We believe that justice is done for the victim’s family. They just wanted to make sure she was never ever released from prison.”
Riess’ initial appearance is set for Tuesday in Dodge County. Documents, filed in Dodge County District Court March 3, state that Lois Riess must be brought to trial within 180 days of being returned to Minnesota unless the judge rules to postpone the trial.