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Tonja Henjum and her daughter Taylor struggled during distance learning this spring, and Henjum worries that if Taylor can’t receive in-person instruction this fall, she’ll fall further behind academically. (Photo by Rilyn Eischens/Minnesota Reformer)

Aid for small businesses and non-profits available for Waseca County businesses

Waseca County and the city of Waseca have a plan on how to make money they received from the CARES Act available for small businesses and nonprofits.

The county and city have teamed up with the Waseca Area Chamber of Commerce to organize administering a small business and nonprofit relief program. Waseca County, which received $2.2 million in relief funds, has contributed $500,000 to the program. The city of Waseca will contribute $300,000 of the $680,000 it received. The Waseca Area Chamber of Commerce will receive compensation for administering the program.

It’s the second aid package the city of Waseca has offered after its economic development authority spread out $225,000 to 35 businesses through zero interest loans up to six month with a maximum of $10,000. Businesses with 15 or fewer employees were eligible for the forgivable loans, provided they also apply for other federal and state dollars.

The small business and nonprofit relief fund will provide money as grants up to a $15,000 maximum and the amount of money a business or nonprofit receives will depend upon how many full-time employees the business or nonprofit staffs, according to Waseca Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Ann Fitch. The minimum grant amount is $3,000.

Applications are available and the applications will be done online. Links to the application will be available on the county website, city websites within Waseca County and the chamber website. The first review of applications will take Aug. 10 and grants will be awarded at least bi-weekly until funds have been expended. The deadline to apply is Wednesday, Sept. 30 by 5 p.m.

“We all want to see these dollars out the door and in the hands of businesses as quickly as possible,” Fitch said. “I don’t think we want to see this drag out past early September. Hopefully there is a flood of applications that come in from all over the county.”

Fitch and the chamber will review applications to make sure they meet the guidelines the county set for the program and the goal is to review them in the order they are received. Checks for the program will come from the county once an application has been approved.

The Waseca County Community COVID-19 small business and nonprofit relief grants will give priority to businesses and nonprofits that were forced to shut down normal operations due to Gov. Tim Walz’s executive orders.

The grant funds can be used for rent or mortgage payments, utility payments, costs association as a direct result of COVID-19, and payroll for employees. The grant funds cannot be used to purchase machinery or vehicles, moving expense or land acquisition or payment of property taxes.

A copy of the grant application be found at or at

Steele/Waseca Drug Court celebrate trio of grads virtually

The Steele/Waseca Drug Court celebrated three new graduates Wednesday. This year’s ceremony was held virtually to accommodate social distancing restrictions.

The drug court team, Judge Joseph A. Bueltel and James Eberspacher (Director at National Center for DWI Courts), met virtually to celebrate the accomplishments of their program graduates. Graduates’ friends and family were also encouraged to join the ZoomGov meeting. Others interested in watching the virtual meeting could do so by visiting the Steele County Courthouse.

“We are very excited to acknowledge all the hard work put forth by our participants to change their lives,” Drug Court Coordinator Nicole Grams wrote in an email prior to the commencement.

On Wednesday, Alison Johnson, Janiffer Miller and Adam Lopez became the program’s 60th, 61st and 62nd graduates.

So far Steele/Waseca Drug Court has served around 197 people, with 93 participants either withdrawing from the program to serve their jail time, transferring to another drug court, terminated due to new criminal activity or refusing the services provided. The five-step program currently has 45 participants. The total number of sobriety days among the group is 10,977 or about 30 years combined. The average sobriety for a program participant is 243 days, according to Grams.

Eberspacher representing the National Association of Drug Court Professionals was also in attendance. Eberspacher was the former Minnesota State Drug Court Coordinator when the Steele/Waseca Drug Court was first started and is an ex probation officer. He was responsible for completing site visits at each court site during his program evaluation for the association.

“It’s heartwarming for me to be able to speak at events like this because they’re really truly important,” he said. He added that he likes to see the life changes people make and the “Minnesota nice” of supporting and helping others.

Often people in the justice system are assigned numbers, which can silence a person’s voice, story, emotions, ideas and values. Numbers are impersonal.

“This team knew your name from day one,” Eberspacher said to the graduates. “Alison, Janifer and Adam, you’re not numbers, you’re individuals.”

Other members of the drug court team gave words of advice and congratulations to graduates.

Alison Johnson

Alison Johnson stands with the plaque she earned through the Steele/Waseca Drug Court program. (Photo courtesy of Kaiya Martin)

Johnson began the program mid-January 2019, entering following a charge of first-degree possession of controlled substance. As a result of completing the program, Johnson avoided a 65-month sentence. She completed 132 tests during her time in the program and is on day 321 of her sobriety journey as of Wednesday.

“I feel like I’m ready to be able to keep myself accountable,” Johnson said. She says she looks forward to finally moving on, being a mother to her child and focusing on her goals. One of which is to get her driver’s license.

Grams described Johnson as quiet and humble.

“Your whole focus has been how to take care of your personal health, how to take care of your personal recovery and how to be a better parent and how you continue to be a better daughter,” Grams said at the commencement.

Johnson thanked the team for holding her accountable.

“I got to remember that addiction is a lifelong process,” Johnson said. “I have to monitor it and be aware.”

Janiffer Miller

Janiffer Miller with her plaque from the Steele/Waseca Drug Court program. (Photo courtesy of Kaiya Martin)

Miller entered the program after being charged with felony terroristic threat, two counts of felony violating orders for protection and a gross misdemeanor DWI. She has been in the program since Feb. 2, 2017. She had been at risk of incarceration for 21 months. During her time in the program she took 317 tests and spent 495 days sober as of the commencement.

“You worked through a lot of adversity during the time that you have been in our program,” Grams said. “You were able to pull yourself up each time.”

She has a strong connection to fellowship and the recovery community, whether it is attending the softball and kickball tournaments or making connections with others in recovery.

“I encourage you to continue to be a role model for others that don’t have to show perfection when they go through the program, but they can continue to show personal growth,” Grams said to Miller.

Miller wants to continue to focus on her recovery and connect with the network she has built during the program that will support her sobriety. During the commencement she said the program was great and that she is thankful for it.

“I’m grateful for the program and all of you,” she said.

Adam Lopez

Adam Lopez stands with his plaque from the Steele/Waseca Drug Court program. (Photo courtesy of Kaiya Martin)

Lopez joined the drug court in September 2018. He was supposed to graduate in March, but the pandemic delayed that. He came into the program with felony first-degree burglary and felony fifth-degree controlled substance possession charges. He was at risk of a 51-month sentence in prison, but has received a downward departure. Lopez completed 151 tests and has been sober for 777 days.

Grams added that Lopez, too, has a strong connection to his family, a strong work ethic and is committed to his recovery program.

She also mentioned how Lopez had become a mentor to his brother. At one point Lopez’s brother had shared on Facebook that watching Lopez recover motivated him to also seek recovery.

“I want you to know that others have watched and they have observed, and they too have looked to you to be a mentor,” Grams said to Lopez.

Lopez thanked everyone for their involvement in his recovery.

“I’m on a mission and I got my kids back and everything like that,” Lopez. He has gone on family trips to Duluth and is getting to experience new things with his family.

A brief look at the program

The six-year-old drug court program was created to help high risk and high-need substance abusers that were continually coming in and out of the court system.

The drug court program is voluntary, and allows people with drug or drug-related offenses the opportunity to reduce their jail time by completing a substance abuse treatment plan and meeting certain requirements. The general requirements include completing a substance abuse evaluation and continued assessments, substance abuse treatment, attending regular drug court hearings, submitting to random drug tests, maintaining employment, completing their GED and obeying the law, among any other requirements for a particular participant. A participant must be in the program for a minimum of 18 months, according to the Steele/Waseca Drug Court website.

Evidence has shown that drug courts can be a cost-effective way to reduce drug use and crime. Program participants reported less criminal activity (40%) and fewer rearrests (52%) compared to similar offenders (54% and 62% respectively), according to the National Institute of Justice’s Multisite Adult Drug Court Evaluation. In addition, program participants reported less drug use (54%) than comparable offenders (76%). They were also less likely to test positive on a drug test than their counterparts (29% and 46% respectively). Although treatment costs were higher for those that participated in the program, the decrease in recidivism saved an average of $5,680 to $6,208 per participant, according to the evaluation.

Waseca starting pitcher Kelvin Nelson delivers a pitch Wednesday against Hastings at Tink Larson Community Field. Nelson gave up two runs, scattered nine hits and struck out eight in a complete-game victory. (Nick Gerhardt/Waseca County News)

In this May 27, 2020 photo, Aaron Rainboth, a teacher at the Frederickson KinderCare daycare center in Tacoma, Wash., wears a mask as he takes the temperature of Benjamin Simpson, 4, after he complained of feeling hot following an outdoor play period, but found it to be normal. The U.S. House passed important relief for child care centers Wednesday, but the bills’ fate in the Senate is uncertain. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

U report: Meat processing issues continue to hinder state's farmers

A report from the University of Minnesota’s Institute for Sustainable Agriculture highlights just how difficult it is for many small- and medium-sized livestock producers to access the meat processing they need.

The University’s Livestock Processing Survey was sent out in May, so as to capture some of the effects of COVID-19 on the market. At that time, COVID outbreaks in some parts of the state had hit local processing plants particularly hard, limiting capacity.

The results, finally released last week, paint a dire picture of a market that was overtaxed even before COVID. Out of 11 farmers who responded to the survey, 64% said that processing capacity was already inadequate for their business.

Now, just 17% of farmers report they have adequate access to processing facilities, with the majority of respondents saying that processors of all types are booked out for months. Astoundingly, one processor reported they are booked out through fall of 2021.

The lack of access to processing comes at a time when consumer demand for locally raised meats from small producers is growing — and could grow even larger. According to the survey, 65% of respondents have seen increased demand.

A majority of the survey’s respondents told the University of Minnesota that if processing was available, they would definitely expand their operations. However, with capacity as limited as it has become, many farmers have instead been forced to cull their herds.

Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, said that the state needs to encourage facilities to stay open and keep employees working. Drazkowski said that the best way to do that would be to work with each individual facility on a customer plan.

“I think that will see better results than a dictatorial approach,” he said.

State Rep. Jeff Brand, who serves as vice chair of the House Agriculture Committee, said that he and the committee had heard extensively about the issue even before the pandemic hit. That shortage of capacity hurts small farmers the most.

“A lot of our farmers couldn’t sell the hogs for free, because they were having such a hard time getting people to process them,” Brand shared.

Brand said that in rural areas throughout the state, the number of small processors used to be much higher but declined along with the number of small farmers. While the number of small, family-owned farms has again begun to increase, processing capacity hasn’t yet returned.

The issue has only been exacerbated by COVID due to the series of outbreaks at processing facilities. While reports of outbreaks have slowed in recent weeks, he said that’s largely because they are now operating at reduced capacity.

When it comes to the state’s meatpacking plants, Brand said much more needs to be done to protect the safety of workers. He attributed the early outbreaks to a failure on the part of many plant owners to ensure adequate protections.

“We have to do better on making sure employees are safe,” he said.

Employee safety

In next year’s legislative session, Brand said that he hoped an agreement could come about to support smaller producers. That’s a top priority for Stu Lourey, director of government affairs for the Minnesota Farmers Union.

Lourey touted the federal Requiring Assistance to Meat Processors for Upgrading Plants (RAMP-UP) Act, introduced by House Agriculture Committee Chair Collin Peterson, D-MN, and co-sponsored by local Rep. Angie Craig, D-Eagan, as a potential model.

Under that bill, introduced in Congress last month, a new federal program would be created to provide funding for existing plants to make facility upgrades and as well as planning grants to help plants meet federal guidelines, so they can sell their meat across state lines.

“Amidst disruptions in the food supply chain due to COVID-19, our farmers and local processors have continued to innovate to get safe food on the table for millions of Americans,” Craig said in a prepared statement. “By continuing to support our local meat processors, we are safeguarding our food supply and stimulating rural economies.”

Lourey said that for the system to work efficiently for farmers across the state, a different processing model is needed. He said the consolidation toward larger plants has badly hindered the system’s ability to cope with the stress of COVID.

However, he noted that a major challenge for meat processors is that the capital costs associated with getting into the business are so high. As a result, he says that public investment is needed to avoid market distortions.

“What we’ve seen, and what Farmers Union has known for awhile, is that when the processing system is too consolidated it becomes brittle and vulnerable to disruption,” he said. ““We need a strong and sustained investment in local meat processing.”

Rice County Farmers Union President Steven Read said that in addition to providing additional funding, difficulties with the licensing and regulatory system also need to be dealt with. He also said the industry is dealing with a major labor shortage.

“The last meat processing program in Minnesota closed down years ago, and now there’s not a vocational program dedicated to meat processing,” he said. “So it’s very difficult to find the skilled labor you need for those facilities.”

When farmers can’t get an animal processed within a certain period of time, Read said that the meat can quickly lose its quality. As a result, small- and medium-sized farmers can have a hard time bringing their best quality product to market.

“There’s a sweet spot for when an animal should be processed for its best result,” he said. “If you can’t have those animal processed during that period, it isn’t as good.”