From Inception to Winning $5.35 Million in State Soil Health Dollars & Beyond
Land Stewardship Project members believe that the kind of agricultural system and democracy we have is up to us. Our members are the experts when it comes to their communities and farms and, together, we can and must make regenerative agriculture the norm, rather than the exception. We believe our public institutions exist to serve the people and the natural world and must reward, invest in, and prioritize small and mid-sized farming, livestock on the land, soil-healthy agriculture, resiliency, diversity, and stewardship. To transform the farm and food system, we must come together across our differences, engage in our institutions and elections, and build and exert collective people power.
That’s why, during the Summer of 2020, a new committee of members (see sidebar) convened to launch an effort to advance LSP’s "Strategic Soil Health & Climate Initiative" through the development and implementation of public policy. Between September and November 2020, the Soil Health and Climate Organizing Committee engaged 675 LSP members and supporters from throughout Minnesota through surveys, listening sessions, events, and one-to-one discussions .
Following the 2020 general election, the committee met regularly to digest the wealth and depth of input provided. The theme was clear: now is the time for landscape-scale transformation. Not only are farmers on the front lines of the climate crisis — battling extreme weather and changing seasons while also building soil health to sequester carbon and soak up excess water — many are also still experiencing financial stress. To alleviate financial barriers that often limit farmers’ abilities to adopt innovative practices while setting our state on track to be a global leader in sustainable and regenerative farming, as well as to advance our understanding of soil science, the team assembled the elements of a comprehensive soil health bill. Between late November and early January, members of the committee and our legislative champion, Rep. Todd Lippert (DFL–Northfield), worked hard to craft strong bill language to introduce in the 2021 session of the Minnesota Legislature.
100% Soil-Healthy Farming Bill
The farmer-built and farmer-driven legislation sets a goal of "100% soil-healthy farming" in Minnesota. Even more importantly, it provides the resources for helping to reach that goal. By ensuring soil-healthy practices are profitable from day-one through grants and direct payments, rotationally-grazed livestock, perennial cropping systems, cover crops, and no-till can play significant roles in the way our Minnesota landscape is managed.
As many farmers experiment with such practices before scaling up across their farms, the voluntary goals are that:
- 50% percent of Minnesota farmers implement cover crops, perennial crops, no-till, or managed rotational grazing by 2030.
- 100% of Minnesota farmers implement cover crops, perennial crops, no-till, or managed rotational grazing by 2035.
- 100% of the state's tillable and grazable acres employ cover crops, perennial crops, no-till, or managed rotational grazing by 2040.
The goals put responsibility on the state of Minnesota to prioritize soil health investments and programming. Once set, the state would be accountable to meet them.
The proposed grant program’s goal is to assist farmers in covering the up-front costs of implementing new soil-healthy practices via the direct payments initiative. Through the bill, a farmer could receive up to $15,000 through the grant program and, for up to five years, up to $12,500 per year for implementing soil-healthy cropping systems, and up to $17,500 per year for implementing managed rotational grazing systems. Payment per acre would depend on the cost to integrate the practice, the amount required to incentivize the practice, and the benefits the practice provides to ecosystems and people.
To advance economic equity for small and mid-sized farmers, payment-per-acre would be higher for smaller farmers. Additionally, a farmer would only be able to get direct payments for up to 1,000 grazable and/or tillable acres to ensure dollars are available to as many farms as possible. Finally, to address historic and ongoing economic, racial, and gender injustice in our farm and food system, the committee also built in a provision to award grants and direct payments in priority-order based on farm size, race, and gender.
To deepen our understanding of how different soil-healthy practices impact various soil profiles across the state over time, the bill also has a provision for soil health data collection and research.
The programs, goals, and data collection would be implemented and coordinated by the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, local Soil and Water Conservation Districts, the Minnesota Office of Soil Health, and the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment.
Advancing the 100% Soil-Healthy Farming Bill in the Legislature
The "100% Soil-Healthy Farming Bill" was introduced Feb. 4 in the Minnesota House by Representative Lippert and 24 co-authors, then in the Minnesota Senate on Feb. 17 by Senator Kent Eken (DFL–Audubon), with four co-authors from two parties — the Senate limit.
On Feb. 17, the bill was heard in the House Agriculture Finance and Policy Committee. LSP member and livestock and organic crop farmer Luke Peterson of A Frame Farm in Dawson, Minn., testified before the committee. “Agriculture doesn’t need to be a carbon source — it can be and must be a carbon sink," he told the committee members. "Unlike the energy and transportation systems, we can do more than limit the amount of carbon we emit. We can actually store carbon in the soil and plants. We can sequester the amount of carbon needed to mitigate the climate crisis if we come together and put forth bold solutions that our communities need.”
Shona Snater, LSP's interim programs director and a soil health organizer, along with Clean River Partners member and crop farmer Mike Peterson, also testified in support of the bill. The bill passed with an 11-1 vote, earning the support of the entire House GOP and House DFL caucuses, and was referred to the House Civil Law Committee. After passing the House Civil Law Committee, the bill was referred to the House Environment and Natural Resources Finance and Policy Committee, which oversees the Board of Water and Soil Resources budget.
In tandem with the legislative strategy, hundreds of LSP members and supporters were organizing (virtually) on the ground. Members came together for: three virtual “community conversations” to learn about the bill and how to take action; three virtual “organizing meetings” to strategize and take action together; and numerous lobbying, relational organizing, and in-district meeting trainings. Meanwhile, thousands of members and supporters made their voices heard by signing our 100% Soil-Healthy Farming petition and contacting their elected officials.
LSP members planned and held numerous virtual in-district meetings with their legislators to discuss the 100% Soil-Healthy Bill, as well as other LSP priorities. Members met with Senator Jason Rarick (R–Pine City), Senator Mike Goggin (R–Red Wing), Senator Justin Eichorn (GOP–Bemidji), Senator Nick Frentz (DFL–North Mankato), Representative Lippert, Senator Melisa Franzen (DFL–Edina), Senate DFL agriculture lead Erin Murphy (DFL–St. Paul), Senator John Marty (DFL–Roseville), Representative Dave Pinto (DFL–St. Paul), and Representative Alice Hausman (DFL–St. Paul). Members also reached out to, but were denied meetings with, Senators Bill Ingebrigtsen (GOP–Alexandria) and Carrie Ruud (GOP–Breezy Point. Senators Ingebrigtsen and Ruud are the chairs of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Finance Committee and the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Policy and Legacy Finance Committee, respectively.
House & Senate Budget Proposals
In April, the Minnesota House and Senate finalized their separate budget and policy proposals for the Board of Water and Soil Resources and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA).
The Minnesota House proposed to:
• 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 was an adjusted goal from LSP’s original 100% Soil-Healthy Farming Bill proposal, and we felt it was a strong foundation to build upon. (House File 1076 — Representative Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul).
• Establish a Soil Health Cost Share Program and appropriate $1 million to the program. This is a Board of Water and Soil Resources proposal with the addition of some language from LSP’s 100% Soil-Healthy Farming Bill. Language to prioritize farmers who need the funds most was not included (House File 1076 — Representative Hansen).
• Appropriate $11.3 million for implementation of soil-healthy practices via the Clean Water Fund. In partnership with legislative allies, LSP successfully included some language from our 100% Soil-Healthy Farming Bill and ensured that farmers who rent land can access these dollars. Language to prioritize farmers who need the funds most was not included (House File 1079 — Representative Leon Lillie, DFL-North St. Paul)
In stark contrast, the Minnesota Senate proposed no funding or policies around soil health, and actually proposed to significantly defund the Minnesota Department of Agriculture's Sustainable Agriculture Demonstration Grant Program, which LSP members have worked to fund for years (Senate File 958 — Senator Torrey Westrom, GOP-Elbow Lake).
While the Minnesota House proposed crucial steps forward to addressing the challenges our farmers and communities face, the Minnesota Senate failed to measure up. Why? Although we know we have all the resources we need to ensure Minnesotans and the land thrive, Big Ag and its legislative allies work to monopolize the budget to fund a status quo agricultural system that benefits a few at the expense of many. Unfortunately, Big Ag has significant political power in the Minnesota Senate and has continued to propose budgets that not only fail to invest in the farm and food system we need, but chip away at the programs that advance it. In fact, despite the 100% Soil-Healthy Farming Bill earning an 11-1 vote in the Minnesota House Agriculture Finance and Policy Committee while having multi-party authorship in the Senate, the Senate Agriculture Committee chair, Senator Westrom, refused to give the bill a hearing.
As the Minnesota House, Senate, and Governor Tim Walz came together to work out the differences between their proposals, LSP members worked hard to ensure soil health funding and the "30% by 2030 goal" were included in final budget and policy bills.
To push the Governor to be a soil health champion, dozens of members and supporters met with the Board of Water and Soil Resources executive director, John Jaschke, and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture Commissioner, Thom Petersen, to deliver over 2,600 petition signatures calling on Walz to endorse the 100% Soil-Healthy Farming Bill.
During that conversation, LSP member and crop and livestock farmer Dana Seifert of Jordan, Minn., said, “Farmers who serve the public good deserve to have all the resources they need to do the work. Right now, they don’t. That’s why we need the 100% Soil Healthy Farming Bill.” Crop farmer Matthew Fitzgerald of Glencoe, Minn., farmer Jim Falk of Falk Seed Farm in Murdock, Minn., and Clean River Partners executive director Kristi Pursell, along with Snater, also shared their stories in the meeting. Petersen and Jaschke committed to working with us to coordinate an on-farm meeting with the Governor, and indicated strong interest in our work to advance soil health solutions.
As the end of the regular session approached, joint House-Senate conference committees were formed to hammer out differences between budget bills before they were sent on to the Governor. To make it clear soil-healthy farming must be supported by the conference committees, dozens of LSP members and staff mobilized thousands of Minnesotans to take action through 80 hours of phone banks and 56 hours of door-knocking. As House chairs Hansen and Lillie were already committed to fighting for our priorities, Senate chairs Ruud and Ingebrigtsen were targeted for this outreach. Local LSP members in Ruud and Ingebrigtsen's districts also published letters-to-the-editor in the Alexandria Echo Press, the Brainerd Dispatch, and the Jordan Independent. Several soil scientists and Soil and Water Conservation District staff wrote letters directly to Senator Ruud, and an LSP "Soil-Healthy" radio ad was broadcast during legislative negotiations.
As the regular 2021 legislative session wrapped up before deals were reached, a majority of final negotiations were private and behind closed doors in the run-up to the special session that took place in June.
This included a decision, championed by Senator Ruud, to unconstitutionally fund Soil and Water Conservation Districts through the Clean Water Fund, which can only be used for clean water projects. Soil and Water Conservation Districts are crucial to the success of Minnesota farmers who want to implement conservation practices and deserve to be funded reliably, fully, and constitutionally. This decision cut into a significant amount of our proposed soil health dollars in the Clean Water, Land, and Legacy Amendment budget. However, we did secure $4 million through the Clean Water Fund to incentivize farmers who own and rent land to implement cover crops on the landscape.
Unlike the Legacy Finance Conference Committee, conversations began to break down between the House and Senate when it came to the Environment and Natural Resources Finance and Policy Conference Committee. In the face of a looming government shutdown, Senate chair Ingebrigtsen reportedly declined to take calls from his House counterpart and took a trip to Alaska without finalizing the budget.
To finalize the budget, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka (R–East Gull Lake), Speaker of the House Melissa Hortman (DFL–Brooklyn Park), and Governor Walz held private negotiations.
The Land Stewardship Project strongly believes in participatory, transparent, and accessible decision-making, and has grave concerns about how our state budgets have been finalized in recent years. Minnesotans should be able to attend and shape negotiation sessions (in-person safely and virtually), access decision-makers, and make their voices heard in meaningful ways. Although past legislative sessions have been challenging for seasoned members and staff, the 2021 legislative session was especially difficult to engage with and influence.
Ultimately, the final Board of Soil and Water Resources budget includes $1.35 million to administer a cost-share program for implementing farming practices that build soil health and improve water quality. Moving forward, this program will have funding automatically built into future state budgets.
In total, through both the Clean Water Fund and Board of Soil and Water Resources budget, LSP members won $5.35 million to get more soil-healthy practices onto the landscape. However, our compromise goal of 30% of farmland employing soil-healthy practices by 2030 was not included in the final budget and policy bill.
We won millions of dollars because of the strong organizing work of LSP members. By effectively organizing around a farmer-developed and farmer-centered comprehensive soil health bill, we were able to establish a good foundation to build from. Just one year ago, soil health was not a topic being considered by the Minnesota Legislature. Not only did we make soil health a top issue, but we also won a significant amount of money when one considers that this is the first year LSP has focused on this issue through state public policy.
We know that this is a pivotal moment for our farm and food system, our landscape, and our communities. Right now, we have the opportunity to regenerate the land, invest in rural economies and Main Streets, and deliver public investments to our farmers. It’s clear that our work has moved many decision-makers to take soil health seriously as an opportunity to build resiliency from and mitigate climate change, invest in rural regeneration, and advance economic justice in the countryside.
At the same time, we know we need more power to truly transform the landscape. This is just the beginning. We have all the resources we need in our society to make sustainable and regenerative farming the norm, rather than the exception. LSP is focusing more resources on huge opportunities at the federal level through the American Jobs Plan, American Rescue Plan implementation, and upcoming federal Farm Bill.
At the same time, LSP will be zeroing in on building public support for the 100% Soil-Healthy Farming Bill by greatly expanding the number of Minnesotans engaged in this campaign, continuing to change the public narrative about soil health, and supporting more land stewardship champions in our decision-making spaces. In short, we are committed to laying the groundwork for making "100% Soil-Healthy Farming" a key part of future state legislative sessions — and a key part of Minnesota's agricultural landscape.