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MN farmers want state aid, more in policy than money

Gov. Mark Dayton gets plenty of publicity every year when he shows off a Minnesota-gown turkey to the media, but farmes say they want more than a photo op from the state. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)1 / 2
A corn field is planted right up to the banks of a ditch, something a new state law will forbid in the next two years. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)2 / 2

ST. PAUL—Minnesota farmers and agriculture-related groups ask for very little money from the state.

Gov. Mark Dayton's $46 billion two-year budget proposal would give just short of $1 billion to the Agriculture Department. At the same time, agriculture provides between 20 percent and 30 percent of Minnesota's jobs and wealth and agriculture leaders say their industry could do even better with a bit more help from the state.

Pat Lunemann said a priority must be "to make sure we have a level playing field with the states surrounding us."

Lunemann, a Clarissa dairy farmer and chairman of the AgriGrowth board, used South Dakota as an example. The dairy industry is growing there, while it is not doing that as much in the historic dairy state of Minnesota.

"South Dakota views a dairy differently than Minnesota does," said Lunemann, who milks 800 cows and farms 1,500 acres.

Dairy and other farmers face more difficulties in Minnesota, he said, especially dealing with state regulations. Farmers long have complained that state agencies, especially the Pollution Control Agency, takes too long to issue construction permits, in part because even after farmers answer officials' questions the state comes back with more questions.

"The agency keeps adding on requests," Lunemann said, which could force farmers to wait for permits more than two years.

Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, began working on the regulation issue right after he took office in 2011. The first bill that year was one he and Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton worked on to reduce regulations and speed the permitting process.

"We have some lingering issues," he said.

While Fabian plans to talk to the Dayton administration about remaining regulation problems, he said new laws are needed, too.

"There is just a tremendous about of frustration," he said.

Feedlot permits

One issue that often comes up is the long time it takes to get a permit to build a livestock feedlot.

"Time is money," Fabian said, and long delays cost farmers and others awaiting permits.

Bills dealing with regulations are expected in coming weeks.

Executive Director Perry Assness of AgriGrowth, an organization that brings farmers together with agri-businesses and others, said the state sometimes is technologically behind. While many agri-businesses use advanced technology, state regulations may not have caught up, he said.

Lunemann said it is not just state regulations that keep farmers down. South Dakota, he said, does more to recruit farm-related businesses. The governor will visit backers of prospective dairy operations.

"The common theme is don't tax us or regulate us out of business," Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, said he hears from constituents.

As far as taxes go, there appears to be an agreement among most legislative leaders and the governor to pass a tax break that died last year when an overall tax bill failed to become law. The provision would reduce the amount of property taxes assessed on farmland for new school construction.

Rural schools complained that they struggled to pass new school plans because the funding burden fell so heavily on farmers. So while districts dominated by cities could pass school votes, that was more difficult in rural areas.

Hamilton and other rural legislators said the most-discussed issue in recent months has been health care.

Health insurance

A bill already signed into law gives aid to some people who buy individual health insurance policies, depended on by many farmers. Lawmakers are expected to debate long-term health insurance reform in the next couple of months as they try to find ways to lower premium and deductible costs.

Lunemann is a posterchild for the need to reform health care.

His insurance company told him last fall that his 2017 premium would be $2,046 a month for his wife and two children. With the high deductibles that were required, Lunemann figured that he would pay up to $45,000 before insurance kicked in.

"That is just not workable for most people in Minnesota," he said.

On a farm, he said, "our assets are at risk" without health insurance.

The Land O' Lakes dairy cooperative, with which he works, established an insurance program for farmers in the same situation as Lunemann. Last month's health-premium assistance law allows other co-ops to set up insurance plans for members.

Most Minnesota farm organizations agree with these other issues that AgriGrowth says are important:

• Water quality issues, such as requiring buffer strips between cropland and water, need at least partial state funding. Also, "sound scientific" solutions are needed and every farm and business could have a different solution to the water pollution issue.

• University of Minnesota agriculture research should be a priority.

• Rural roads and bridges, water projects, water treatment and other infrastructure projects should be funded.

• With the agriculture industry facing worker shortages, the state's educational institutions should help provide affordable training.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.