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House passes $84 million omnibus agriculture finance bill

Rep. Rod Hamilton presents the omnibus agriculture finance bill on the House Floor May 4. Photo by Andrew VonBank

(Updated with video)

With state officials still scrambling to stay ahead of Minnesota’s avian flu outbreak and adequately fund emergency response efforts, the House passed the omnibus agriculture finance bill 110-18 Monday evening. The bill would appropriate millions of dollars to fight the virus and mitigate its damage.

Sponsored by Rep. Rod Hamilton (R-Mountain Lake), HF1437 has been delayed during the last couple of weeks as House leaders worked with state agencies to arrive at a funding level that will cover immediate and future costs of the crisis.

As a result, proposed funding for the Department of Agriculture has risen significantly since HF1437 was introduced in early March. At that time, the legislation called for $62.8 million for the upcoming biennium. The bill passed by the House would appropriate $84.8 million.

Hamilton, who chairs the House Agriculture Finance Committee, offered an optimistic outlook for agriculture despite the current crisis.

House floor session

“Never has there been more opportunity in agriculture than there is today,” Hamilton said.

Although the bill received bipartisan support, several concerns were raised during the House Floor debate. Rep. David Bly (DFL- Northfield) said the bill did too much to advance the interests of corporate farms and not enough to encourage smaller family farms.

Rep. Rick Hansen (DFL-South St. Paul) said he did not support the bill because it helped “the interests outside in the hallway rather than the interests outside the building.”

Avian flu amendments

Several amendments offered during the floor debate dealt with the flu outbreak that has swept through the state over the last few months causing farmers to destroy millions of birds as they attempt to curb its spread, and threatening the market for the state’s turkeys. Minnesota leads the nation in turkey production.

Some of those amendments that were adopted would:

  • add money to reimburse state agencies and local governments for their costs in responding to the outbreak such as overtime, travel, a portable lab for faster testing and more monitoring of wildlife and of the people who have had contact with infected animals;
  • allow unused money to be moved between state agencies to cover costs as the need arises;
  • provide an additional 12 weeks of unemployment benefits to poultry workers laid off as a result of the outbreak; and
  • make poultry producers eligible for assistance from the disaster recovery loan program to replace their flocks, make building improvements and compensate them for lost revenue.

Industrial hemp woven into bill

Rep. Jeanne Poppe speaks to the omnibus agriculture finance bill on the House Floor May 4. Photo by Andrew VonBank

Another significant amendment that was adopted would establish a regulatory framework for a hemp pilot project in Minnesota. It would authorize the Department of Agriculture, along with higher education institutions, to study the benefits and opportunities industrial hemp may provide the state’s farmers. Hemp seeds and oil can be used to make a variety of products, from fabrics and foods to fuels and paper.

Rep. Tony Cornish (R-Vernon Center), who opposed the amendment, said law enforcement agencies are against legalizing hemp because it could confuse the process when testing for marijuana and result in additional costs.

“There are just a myriad of problems with this,” Cornish said.

However, Hamilton and Majority Leader Joyce Peppin (R-Rogers) spoke in support of the amendment and it was adopted on a 89-37 roll call vote.

More money for home cooks

An amendment that was adopted made a minor tweak to a provision in the bill that changes the income limit for home cooks and gardeners who sell their products to the public. It would allow them to sell directly to consumers beyond community events and farmers’ markets and raise their annual sales limit from $5,000 to $18,000.

Sellers with annual gross sales above $5,000 would be required to attend a safe food handling course every three years, those who make less than that would need to take a free online training program.

What else would HF1437 do?

The bill also includes measures that would:

  • establish a new grant program to provide financial and technical assistance to eligible cities around the state that create urban agriculture development zones;
  • create three production-based bioenergy grant programs, to be administered by the department, to encourage advanced biofuel, renewable chemical and biomass thermal production;
  • create a new loan program to help farmers add value to crop or livestock, improve efficiency, achieve environmental improvements and increase on-farm energy production;
  • form an Agriculture, Research, Education, Extension, and Technology Transfer Board to award grants to projects that help Minnesota achieve long-term agricultural productivity;
  • fund statewide mental health counseling to support farm families and business operators;
  • fund a farm-to-foodshelf program that compensates agriculture producers for the costs of harvesting and distributing surplus vegetables and produce to charitable organizations;
  • fund grants to Second Harvest Heartland for the purchase and distribution of fresh milk to charitable organizations;
  • commission a livestock industry study to identify causes of growth or decline of poultry and livestock production in the upper Midwest over the last 10 years;
  • require structural pest control license holders to have a valid license ID to buy restricted use pesticides identified as particularly dangers to humans and the environment if used incorrectly;
  • commission a feasibility study of importing baitfish into the state for resale; and
  • establish a pilot program to train inmates at the Northeast Regional Corrections Center for careers as butchers upon their release.

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