Local livestock producers have struggled with processing capacity issues for years. If agreed to by the House and Senate, a new agriculture omnibus bill could help to address that issue. (File photo/southernminn.com)

Minnesota farmers could soon get a boost from the initiatives and investments included in a comprehensive omnibus bill, but only if the Republican-controlled Senate and DFL-run House can find a way to compromise between their differing versions of the plan before session ends May 17.

The two bills have much in common. Both include investment to help increase the state’s livestock processing capacity. Supply issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic and COVID outbreaks in several regional meatpacking facilities hit local producers hard last year, forcing some to cull their herds. Even before COVID-19, most farmers found the supply of meat packing facilities to be inadequate, according to a University of Minnesota’s most recent Livestock Processing Survey. After the pandemic hit, just 17% reported that they had adequate access to processing facilities.

The lack of access comes at a time when consumer demand for locally raised meats from small producers is growing. According to the survey, 65% of respondents have seen increased demand and a majority would expand operations if more processing were available.

Rice County Farmers Union President Steven Read said he’s struggled to find a place to process animals. Still, he’s happy to see the legislature considering a bill with many provisions he has long supported; two in particular stand out as being the likeliest to make a difference now for struggling farmers.

“There’s a lot of critical things in this bill,” he said. “But the ones I think have the most immediate effect for folks are going to be the extension of the farm lender mediation program and addressing the food processing issue.”

Other items with bipartisan support include investment in robust infrastructure for biofuels, funding for rural broadband, investment in helping farmers deal with mental health challenges and increased investment in the state’s farm to school program.

Two local legislators serve on the 10 member conference committee tasked with developing a compromise version of the bill that can pass both houses. They are Rep. Todd Lippert, DFL-Northfield, and Sen. Mike Goggin, R-Red Wing.

Lippert hopes to see the final bill come closer to the House’s version, which includes key provisions to support urban farming and emerging farmers. With the state’s agriculture workforce aging and overwhelmingly white, he said such investments are badly needed.

“New immigrant communities that want to farm are important,” he said. “The Emerging Farmers Program is designed to help support those farmers.”

Lippert has also been a champion of efforts to extend the farmer-lender mediation period, a measure designed to give extra time for farmers on the brink of bankruptcy or foreclosure to demonstrate their operation’s financial viability.

Extending the farmer-lender mediation period is a proposal that has won bipartisan support in the past. However, only the House’s omnibus currently includes a provision to increase the period by a month, from 90 to 120 days.

The House’s bill also provides additional funding for some measures, though the final price tag only comes in at $2 million more than the Senate bill. The Senate included unique measures as well, including an amendment to allow EMTs to help police dogs wounded in the line of duty.

Goggin was enthused by several provisions of the bill, including one to loosen regulations on seasonal processors of venison and other game for individual consumption. Another initiative would see a new meat processing program established within Minnesota.

Goggin said that a major issue driving the lack of processing capacity was the absence of a dedicated meat processing training program in the state. The omnibus bill would address that, with the new program to be located at Central Lakes College in Staples.

“When we talked to our small processors, they said that it would help if we had a program for people to go to (for training),” he said. “Then when they get to our facilities, they’re ready to go from the start.”

Passing an ag omnibus bill has been a priority of both parties. The Senate was first to tackle the omnibus, passing a version of the bill in a bipartisan 48-14 vote April 15. The House followed suit a week later, passing a larger version of the Senate’s bill by a narrower, partisan margin of 69-63. Republican-backed amendments to remove several of the bill’s unique and most controversial provisions were voted down along party lines as well.

Among those provisions is an increase to fees placed on pesticide sales. Minnesota currently charges a 0.55% fee for agricultural pesticides and 0.5% fee for non-agricultural pesticides to help the Department of Agriculture cover regulatory and other related costs.

Under the House bill that fee would nearly double to 0.9%, though at just $9 per $1,000 of pesticides it would still be modest. State Auditor Julie Blaha’s office is recommending the increase so that the state can monitor three additional chemicals.

Also controversial is a provision that would add two new members to the Animal Board of Health, one a veterinarian and one a member of a federally recognized tribe.

Reach Reporter Andrew Deziel at 507-333-3129 or follow him on Twitter @FDNandrew. © Copyright 2021 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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