Legislative Update: Headed into the Home Stretch on Farms, Soil Health, Healthcare, Rural Resiliency

During the 2021 session of the Minnesota Legislature, thousands of Land Stewardship Project members from across the state are united in our vision for a sustainable and just farm and food system, as well as healthy communities. This means stewarding a mosaic of prosperous small and mid-sized farms across the countryside; vibrant local economies free of corporate exploitation; healthy soil, water, and land; a robust democracy; and justice for all people across geography, class, race, and gender. All of this is reflected in our legislative priorities — both advancing the best and stopping the worst.

At this point in the legislative session, omnibus policy and budget bills are being finalized in the Minnesota House and Senate. This month, each body will pass its own proposals. Then, in May, five members from each body will come together in conference committees to iron out differences and finalize compromises. In mid-May, each body will pass the compromised omnibus bills before the Governor signs them into law.

Here is a summary of the status of provisions the Land Stewardship Project is championing, supporting, and fighting to stop:

Supporting Small & Mid-Sized Farmers and Holding Corporate Ag Accountable

As farmers across the state rebound from the compounding impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, six years of low prices, and consolidation across the industry, our state must provide immediate support for farmers in financial stress and work to address the root causes of these challenges.

Minnesota House Proposals:

  • $574,000 for the Farm Advocates Program. For many years, LSP has been advocating for increased funding for this program – this is a step in the right direction.

  • $1.268 million for dairy development, profitability enhancement, and dairy business planning grants.

  • Extend the farmer-lender mediation period from 60 to 90 days. LSP has been advocating for more time, however, this is a step in the right direction.

  • Extend from 90 to 120 days the period a creditor and the creditor's successors may not begin or continue proceedings to enforce a debt against agricultural property after a mediation request is filed. This is a step in the right direction.

Minnesota Senate Proposals:

  • Eliminate and limit restrictions for spreading factory-farmed manure. This proposal serves just a handful of large operations and their wealthy investors, uplifting an industry that is running small and mid-sized farms out of business, forcing rural communities to foot the bill to clean up detrimental impacts on human health and the environment.

  • Increase “efficiency” of environmental review and permitting of industrial projects, like factory farms and frac sand mines. This idea continues to put corporations above people and the land.

  • Limit the rights of affected persons to petition for environmental review of industrial projects, like factory farms or frac sand mines. This is a bad idea: projects undertaken in one county can significantly impact downstream or downwind communities across the state.

  • $494,000 for the Farm Advocates Program. This is a step in the right direction, but the House proposal is stronger.

  • $1.268 million for dairy development, profitability enhancement, and dairy business planning grants. This matches the House proposal.

  • The Senate is proposing nothing to continue protection of farmers in financial stress by extending deadlines in the Farmer-Lender Mediation Act. In 2020, LSP pushed for a bill to extend these deadlines; it passed unanimously.

Soil-Healthy Farming

By ensuring our farmers have all the resources they need to implement soil-healthy practices, we can build rural resiliency and boost farm income. Innovative farming that generates public benefits deserves public investment.

Minnesota House Proposals:

  • Establish a statewide soil-healthy farming goal that at least 30% of Minnesota farmland includes cover crops, perennial crops, no-till, or managed rotational grazing by 2030 to boost farm income, build soil health, prevent or minimize erosion and runoff, retain and clean water, sequester carbon, support pollinators, and increase farm resiliency. This is an adjusted goal from LSP’s original 100% Soil-Healthy Farming Bill proposal.

  • Establish a Soil Health Cost Share Program and appropriate $1 million to the program. This is a Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR) proposal with the addition of some language in LSP’s 100% Soil-Healthy Farming Bill. We will be working with BWSR to ensure these funds are prioritized for farmers who need them most: Black, Brown, Indigenous, women, disabled, and small and mid-sized farmers.

  • $11.3 million for implementation of soil-healthy practices via the Clean Water Fund. In partnership with legislative allies, LSP has successfully included some language from our 100% Soil-Healthy Farming Bill and ensured that farmers who rent land can access these dollars. We will be working with BWSR to ensure these funds are prioritized for farmers who need them most.

  • $4.5 million for the Forever Green Initiative.

  • Require a $25 fee on certain housing filings as a step toward equitable and consistent funding for Soil & Water Conservation Districts, regardless of zip code.

Minnesota Senate Proposals:

  • $4 million for the Forever Green Initiative.

  • Significantly defund the sustainable ag demonstration grants, a program that for years LSP members have fought for.

Investing in our Local and Regional Food Systems

By creating a robust and safe network of local processors and expanding local markets for farm products, including public institutional buying, we bring jobs to rural communities, bolster farm income, and build a more resilient and healthier farm and food system for all of us.

Minnesota House Proposals:

  • $1.6 million for the farm-to-school program, which LSP members have been advocating for since 2019. This is a significant increase from the amount appropriated in 2019.

  • $1 million for start-up, modernization, or expansion of meat, poultry, egg, and milk processing facilities. Preferably, this funding will be prioritized to rebuild a robust network of small processors across the countryside to provide farmers with local, small processors, bring jobs to rural Minnesota, and keep our dollars in our communities.

  • Creating the Safe Workplaces for Meat & Poultry Processing Act to protect workers from exploitation and unsafe work environments, championed by the Union of Food and Commercial Workers.

  • Establishes a new grant program to help farmers finance cooperatives that organize for purposes of operating an agricultural product processing facility or marketing an agricultural product or agricultural service.

Minnesota Senate Proposals:

  • $1 million for the farm-to-school program. This is a small increase from the amount appropriated in 2019. It's a step in the right direction, but the House proposal is stronger.

  • Cut over $600,000 from the Urban Agriculture Grant program.

  • Cut over $300,000 from the Good Food Access program.

Robust Rural Healthcare

Rural Minnesotans face some of the worst disparities in accessing the healthcare they need. Our current health insurance system is a huge, costly barrier to prosperity, sustainability and health in our state and nation. Access—for everyone—to affordable, quality healthcare is critical if we are to have communities where sustainable, family farm-based agriculture and our communities thrive.

Minnesota House Proposals:

  • Require a proposal for developing a public option insurance program for all people, no exceptions, which is a strong step toward ensuring Minnesotans have truly affordable, high-quality, and accessible healthcare.

  • Seek a study to determine more tax efficient ways to pay medical providers to ensure the vitality and survival of our rural health systems.

  • Establish a Prescription Drug Affordability Board and Council to provide financial relief to people facing the burden of high prescription drugs costs.

  • Strengthen public review of proposed hospital closures.

  • Require transparency from managed care organizations by asking the Minnesota Department of Health to report on how they reimburse providers in our public insurance programs.

Minnesota Senate Proposals:

  • A handful of small proposals that are helpful, but ultimately do not address the scale or roots of the challenges Minnesotans are facing.

  • Invest in the “reinsurance” plan, demanded by insurance companies. Reinsurance protects insurance companies from losing money by having the state pay for some of the most expensive patients. Rather than come from a tax on the industry, this money comes out of Minnesota’s public funds.

Funding our Futures

We must creatively and equitably raise revenue to ensure all Minnesotans thrive. Funding our communities, such as investments in healthcare and soil health, requires raising revenue. We all need to contribute our fair share, and that includes our most profitable corporations and wealthiest residents.

Minnesota House Proposals:

  • Create a new fifth-tier income tax rate of 11.15% on married couples making $1 million per year or individuals making $500,000 per year (raising $536.3 million in revenue in the next biennium).

  • Modify individual income tax and corporate tax policies to address the offshoring of profits to foreign tax havens (raising a combined $453.1 million in the next biennium).

  • Strengthen and expand access to the Working Families Credit to support low-income Minnesotans.

  • Help workers and small businesses struggling with the impacts of the pandemic by exempting from taxation unemployment insurance up to $10,200 and PPP loan funds up to $350,000.

The Minnesota Senate’s omnibus tax bill has not yet been released.

Strengthening & Protecting Our Democracy

In Minnesota, we value people-powered governance. This is a make-or-break moment for our democracy and what we do now matters. Over the plast 20 years, and especially since the 2020 election, we have witnessed attacks on our democracy at the national and state levels.

Minnesota House Proposal:

  • Pass the Democracy for the People Act and include key provisions in the State Government Finance and Elections Committee’s omnibus bill that will protect and expand our constitutional right to vote.

  • Strengthen voting rights, elections integrity, free speech, and local control through automatic voter registration, expanded and accessible absentee ballot voting, and more transparency around political campaign contributions.

  • Regulate the legislative process around redistricting and ensure the public is included in the process through listening sessions and other community engagement.

Minnesota Senate Proposal:

  • Increase barriers to the ballot box for already marginalized communities, undermine faith in our elections, and keep the wealthy few in power.

  • Require a voter ID and provisional balloting, witness signature, and other regressive changes.

Emerging & Beginning Farmers

We must invest in getting more farmers on the land, facilitating generational transitions of land and assets, and advancing racial, gender, and economic justice in the farming system. Emerging farmer proposals have been championed by the Latino Economic Development Center and the Hmong American Farmers Association.

Minnesota House Proposals:

  • Establish an Emerging Farmer Account and appropriate $20,000 to it.

  • Create an emerging farmer office and hire a full-time emerging farmer outreach coordinator, appropriate $300,000 to this work.

  • Establish a pilot project that creates farmland access teams to provide technical assistance to potential beginning farmers.

  • Increase the Beginning Farmer Tax Credit rate from 5% to 10% for sale of land or agricultural assets to socially disadvantaged farmers — Black, Brown, Indigenous, women, and disabled farmers.

  • Allow for 5% of the funds allocated for the Beginning Farmer Tax Credit to be used for administration and to develop an online application.

Senate Proposals:

  • $1 million for grants for beginning farmers.

  • May include some adjustments to the Beginning Farmer Tax Credit, but the Minnesota Senate tax omnibus bill has yet to be released.

Healthy Pollinators

Our farm and food system depends on our pollinator populations. With our pollinator populations dwindling, we need decision-makers to take action. Farmers will be unable to feed our communities or provide economic benefit to our state without stewarding the health of our pollinators.

Minnesota House Proposals:

  • Require a written warning on packaging for neonicotinoid-treated seed.

  • Ban on selling seed treated or coated with neonicotinoids as food, feed, oil, or ethanol feedstock.

  • Ban on disposing of seed treated or coated with neonicotinoids in a manner not consistent with the product label, where applicable, or near a drinking water source, creek, stream, river, lake, or other surface water, in compost, or by incineration within a home or other dwelling.

  • Fund rulemaking for treated seed disposal.

  • Restores control over pollinator-lethal pesticides to local communities.

Minnesota Senate Proposals:

  • None.

Clean Energy

Minnesota House Proposal:

  • Become the next state committed to a pathway to 100% clean, equitable energy and a fully decarbonized electrical sector by 2040. We deserve an equitable clean energy future for everyone in our state.

  • Investment in solar installations in public spaces such as schools, state parks, and state buildings, and remove barriers to installing solar on farmland.

  • Public Utilities Commission to produce a report that determines the social, environmental, and economic costs of carbon lifecycle emissions from renewable natural gas, manure methane, power to ammonia, district energy, and other technologies. This information will be vital in clearly outlining what technologies are worth our investment and calculate the societal costs of false solutions.

  • Inclusion of language proposed by CenterPoint Energy that includes exploring burning methane from factory farm manure and other industrial facilities to ensure they can continue to use and charge customers for upkeep of their pipelines. We need to invest in energy that is truly clean, not false solutions. Non-fossil-fuel-based natural gases still release potent greenhouse gases, are expensive, and prop up industries such as factory farms that harm small and mid-sized farmers and our air, water, and land. Unlike the Senate version, The House version does not prioritize manure-based gas technologies. However, both the Senate and House versions ignore setting goals for fully decarbonizing the energy sector.

Minnesota Senate Proposal:

  • Inclusion of language proposed by CenterPoint Eenergy described above. Prioritizes renewable natural gas or methane-based fuels over cleaner technologies such as strategic electrification or district energy which utilizes steam for energy for natural gas innovation plans. While efforts are appreciated to decarbonize the fossil fuel sector, this bill does not move Minnesota closer to a more sustainable future and perpetuates harms against rural communities.

The Bottom Line

In summary, the Minnesota House is taking crucial steps forward to addressing the challenges our communities face. However, the Minnesota Senate is failing to measure up. The Land Stewardship Project is organizing to advance a state budget and state policies that reflect our values of stewardship, justice, democracy, health, and community. As conference committees and final negotiations heat up, we need you with us.

LSP organizer Amanda Koehler can be reached via e-mail. See the sidebar for details on how to get more involved this legislative session.