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Proposals benefit farmers, vets

ST. PAUL -- Farm-minded state lawmakers say they are looking to improve Minnesota agriculture's future - and the environment -- by pushing legislation helping livestock producers and farmers who grow crops used to make biofuels.

Those are two provisions in a package of agriculture and military veterans' proposals moving through the Legislature. The catch-all policy bills also address bovine tuberculosis, veterans' cemeteries, concerns about agricultural and forest land development and even animal chiropractors.

After seeing tax proposals benefiting dairy farmers fail for four years, lawmakers this year want to create a grant program for livestock farmers. Producers who enhance their operations with improvements such as building additions or equipment upgrades costing more than $4,000 could seek a state grant to cover some of the expense.

Sen. Steve Dille, R-Dassel, said the program may start small but could expand in future years. He said there is demand for the program, even though livestock farmers face rising feed costs, making it increasingly difficult to maintain operations.

"It's going to go fast," Dille said of grant money. "There's interest."

Senate agriculture Chairman Jim Vickerman, from a mostly rural area in southwestern Minnesota, said the livestock program could give young farmers incentive to stay in the industry.

"It's tough to get into farming right now," said Vickerman, DFL-Tracy.

While similar, the House and Senate bills are different, so must be reconciled before a final version can be sent to Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Senators already passed their version, while House agriculture leader Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, said his bill could get a floor vote as early as Thursday.

A key provision in both bills actually is a Pawlenty-backed initiative. The Republican governor and lawmakers want to expand the use of biodiesel fuel in Minnesota. The measure would increase an existing 2-percent biodiesel mandate to 20 percent by 2015, though the House and Senate proposals have minor differences. The fuel is a blend of petroleum diesel and biodiesel, which in Minnesota is mostly made from soybeans.

"That's the big part of the bill that everyone's waiting for," Juhnke said of the biodiesel measure. "That is critical -- getting to be the first state that has a B20 mandate."

"As people from around the country look into us, that's what they'll be looking at," he added.

The B20 proposal also is moving through the Legislature in a separate bill; lawmakers put it in the policy package to increase its chances of passage.

"You want to clean up the environment, that's the way you do it; you use (biofuels)," Vickerman said.

Veterans' initiatives also are tucked into the bills. Chief among them is creation of a Veterans Health Care Advisory Council, a panel that will recommend to state officials how best to provide medical care to Minnesota veterans. The council is part of an overhaul in how Minnesota's five veterans' homes are run. That is the result of a governor's task force that was assembled last year following concerns about medical care at one veterans' home.

Other proposals in the bills include:

-- Establishing guidelines allowing chiropractors to treat animals. The issue has been controversial among some veterinarians and chiropractors.

-- Outlining state management of areas of Minnesota where the disease bovine tuberculosis has been found in cattle and deer. The Legislature also is considering other bovine TB legislation.

-- Clarifying oversight of state veterans' cemeteries, though the bills do not authorize funding for a proposed new cemetery in northeastern Minnesota.

-- A House measure making industrial hemp a crop for Minnesota farmers if federal officials permit production of the plant.