Minnesota legislative session beneficial to agriculture

Chad Smith

Agriculture policy groups say that Minnesota farmers fared surprisingly well in the recent state legislative session. That’s especially good news because Minnesota has the only divided Legislature in the country, meaning Republicans control the Senate while Democrats control the House. Minnesota ag groups were keeping an eye on a number of different issues while they advocated for farmers.

Stu Lourey, the new government relations director for the Minnesota Farmers Union, said the Ag Appropriations Bill signed into law has a lot of good things for the state’s farmers.

“We saw a number of new investments in the final package,” Lourey said. “We also saw investments in farmer health programs, as well as more funding designed to get rid of the backlog in meat inspections.

“They also put new funding into the appropriations bill for industrial hemp production, a soybean research campus in northwest Minnesota that can someday hopefully help support the price of beans. There was a whole host of things that could help Minnesota agriculture in the short term and move the state’s ag economy forward.”

Amber Hanson Glaeser holds the identical position with the Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation. She also calls the state session a positive one for agriculture, especially as it deals with farmer property taxes.

“Farmers and ranchers have carried a large load when it comes to property taxes,” she said. “It’s fantastic to get some provisions in the tax bill to help provide some relief to farmers, especially given the down state of the agriculture economy.

“The State Ag2School Tax Credit will increase over the next several years. It’s a phased-in 30 percent increase in the school building bond agricultural credit. The credit is currently at 40 percent and applied to the tax on property attributable to school-district-bonded debt levies. It will increase to 50 percent in 2020 and climb to 55 percent in 2021, 60 percent in 2022, and top out at 70 percent in 2023.”

The Minnesota Corn Growers Association website estimates that the credit will deliver up to $10 million in property tax relief for farmers in 2020-2021, and up to $44 million in fiscal years 2022-2023.

The last six years haven’t been kind to farmers, and they need help to stay in business. Lourey says stress levels for farmers can be overwhelming and the state Legislature took some steps to help.

“The increased funding to help farmers with their mental health is so important,” he said. “The Legislature set aside funding for rural mental health counseling. They also set aside funds for the farm advocacy program. They’re the folks who take care of farm business and help with mediation that can help the business stay viable so folks can continue farming. Those are just a few of the important investments in Minnesota agriculture.”

Glaeser says the Legislature set aside more funding for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s 24-hour hotline, as well as an additional statewide mental health counselor for rural Minnesota. “That’s unfortunately, something very much needed right now,” she said.

“We did make some progress in tax-conformity at the federal level for Section 179 small-business expensing,” Glaeser added. “That’s very helpful for farmers when they can invest in their equipment and their farms again. We didn’t quite make full conformity yet, but we’ll be working on that.”

Glaeser said they’d always like to see more money going into ag funding but there’s a finite amount of dollars to work with. She said the Farm Bureau will continue to work over the next several months and into the next session to make sure that Minnesota farmers have the resources they need.

“There’s also funding in the agriculture bill for a new marketing and development position within the Minnesota Department of Agriculture,” Lourey added. “The new position will focus on industrial hemp development and on developing the farm-to-school market. It’s all about finding new markets and creating new opportunities for Minnesota producers, which I think is really exciting.”

One of Farmers Union’s biggest items of interest didn’t make it through this year’s Legislature. Lourey says the number one mandate they got from their members involved healthcare.

“They told us that we need to do something bold with healthcare,” Lourey said. “More than most folks, farmers buy their health insurance on the individual market because they’re independent business owners. Prices have skyrocketed.

“The governor proposed a buy-in option to the individual healthcare market that was voted down by the Legislature. While the buy-in option wasn’t included in final legislation, it is something that we will work hard on in the months ahead.”

Both Lourey and Glaeser were very happy to see the Legislature take such an interest in agriculture issues, especially when the makeup of the state Legislature includes very few working farmers. In a divided Legislature, Lourey said agriculture did well, all things considered.

“We knew from the outset that whatever deals were reached would be a compromise,” he said. “By definition, compromise means someone doesn’t get everything they want in the outcome. In spite of that, this was a really positive situation that moved things in the right direction.”