MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Gov. Tim Walz proposed a $10 million relief package Friday for farmers who suffered losses due to drought across most of Minnesota this summer — a plan that would require a special legislative session to approve.
The Democratic governor’s proposal includes $5 million in rapid response grants for livestock producers and specialty crop growers for costs of water-related equipment such as tanks, pipelines, wells, water wagons and irrigation equipment. It also includes $5 million for zero-interest disaster recovery loans for losses not covered by insurance.
“They need to make decisions now. They need to know this is going to be there,” Walz said during a news conference at a farm near Hastings.
But Walz said he's still insisting that Senate Republicans agree not to fire Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm if he calls lawmakers back for a special session that was already in the works for a $250 million bonus package for frontline workers in the COVID-19 pandemic. Negotiators from the House Democratic and Senate GOP majorities and the Walz administration missed a Labor Day target for agreeing to which workers are most deserving and how much money they should get.
Republicans so far have not backed off a threat to use the Senate's confirmation powers to oust Malcolm over the administration's pandemic response. Walz called on them to “put the political posturing and things aside” and get both packages done without ousting his health commissioner.
GOP Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller, of Winona, was supportive of the drought relief package and said the Senate would work with Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen and his team “to find a bipartisan solution to provide support to Minnesota’s farmers affected by the drought.” But Miller’s statement was silent about the health commissioner’s fate. Miller had said in a statement last week that Walz should not tie the frontline worker bonuses to other issues.
Petersen told reporters that livestock producers have been forced by the severe-to-exceptional drought to make tough decisions about keeping or selling their herds because of poor pasture conditions and high forage costs. He said the proposal won't make farmers whole, but he called it a starting point. He said it's aimed mostly at livestock and specialty crop producers because they don't have the same safety net programs as other farmers.
Drought conditions have eased somewhat due to recent rains. This week's U.S. Drought Monitor report shows that about 50% of Minnesota is still in a severe to extreme drought, down from about 88% in mid-August. While Minnesota no longer has areas of exceptional drought, the worst category, farmers across most of the state are still expecting serious losses.
Petersen said the proposal calls for grants of up to $5,000, with the first $1 million reserved for livestock and specialty crop producers until officials get a better idea of the demand. He said they'd work to ensure that beginning farmers and those who sell at farmers markets get access. He said the $5 million for loans would replenish an existing fund that currently holds less than $3 million.
Dan Glessing, vice president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau and a dairy farmer from Waverly, said the challenges are just beginning for many producers. He said the silage he’ll feed his cows in the coming months isn’t as good as it should be, so he’ll have to buy supplements to add protein and energy to their feed.
Gary Wertish, president of the Minnesota Farmers Union, called for an agreement soon.
“The more families we have on the farm the more stronger our rural communities are and the stronger our state is," Wertish said.