Local Control & Environmental Review Stay Strong Despite Attacks; Some Gains for Sustainable Ag Research & Beginning Farmer Land Access
The 2017 session of the Minnesota Legislature was highlighted by a tough fight over corporate agriculture's push to make it easier for factory farms to force their way into communities. Corporate ag and its supporters in the Legislature worked hard to weaken the rights of neighbors to have a say in the future of their communities and to limit their access to the courts when resisting the onslaught of factory farms. The Land Stewardship Project fought these efforts with the theme of “Keep Rural Minnesota Strong,” and engaged thousands of rural Minnesotans in speaking up for family farms and local control. Through this strong engagement of our members and supporters—especially rural ones—we were able to stop these attempts and also advance policies to help sustainable agriculture and beginning famers. Here is a summary of what happened with the legislative issues LSP worked on:
• Passed Beginning Farmer Land Access Tax Credit. The Beginning Farmer Land Access Tax Credit provides an income tax credit for landowners and owners of ag assets (agricultural land, livestock, facilities, buildings and machinery used for farming in Minnesota) who rent or sell to a beginning farmer. LSP wrote this bill 10 years ago and has been pushing for it since then. We are excited to see it finally pass and will work to see it implemented in a way that results in land stewardship via more farmers on the land. Thanks are due to Rep. Nels Pierson (R-Rochester) for authoring the bill and taking a lead in moving it through the process.
• Local Control Stays Strong with a veto from Governor Mark Dayton. As in past legislative sessions, LSP made it a priority to stop corporate attempts to weaken local control. We fought House File 330, which would have made enacting an interim ordinance/moratorium in a local community more difficult. LSP members have used this power to stop factory farms, frac sand mines and other unwanted development proposals. While we were able to substantially limit the scope of the bill, the version that was sent to Governor Dayton for his signature still weakened local control. We called on the Governor to stand up for local control and veto the bill, and he did. Get full details on the bill and read Gov. Dayton’s veto letter here.
• Stopped weakening of environmental review of factory farms. Weakening the environmental review process was a priority for corporate ag interests and during the session they pushed to double the size factory farms can be before environmental review is required. If passed, it would have meant more, and larger, factory farms in this state. Environmental review is a key way for neighbors to have a say and to know what is being proposed in their community. We mailed over 20,000 letters to rural supporters on the issue and ran commentaries in rural papers, including this one from farmer and LSP organizer Paul Sobocinski. We also ran radio advertisements on over 70 rural radio stations featuring LSP farmer Dale Post. Listen to it here. The rural outcry this produced forced the bill’s proponents to drop their efforts.
• Defeated a proposal exempting the largest factory farms from nuisance lawsuits. Minnesota already has a so-called “Right to Farm Law” that exempts all but the very largest factory farms from nuisance lawsuits. A nuisance lawsuit is a last-ditch option for neighbors when a nearby factory farm is operating so irresponsibly that they are unable to reasonably use and enjoy their own farm or home. Such lawsuits are expensive to file and rarely successful. In fact, in 15 years there have only been two such lawsuits in Minnesota. However, a bill proposed this session would have severely restricted citizens' ability to hold nuisance factory farms accountable in the courts. As a result of pressure from LSP members and others, this provision did not pass.
• Secured funding for Forever Green at the University of Minnesota. The Forever Green research initiative at the University of Minnesota is doing cutting-edge science related to helping farmers get more continuous living cover on the land using perennials and cover crops. LSP, working with the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, has gotten legislative funding for the initiative in the past, and it’s paid off. For example, Forever Green’s work with the perennial wheat plant Kernza has gained national attention. Working with the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, we secured $750,000 per year for two years for the program. This is down from the $1 million a year we have gotten in the past, and much less than the full funding we had hoped to get of $5 million a year.
• State frac sand air quality rules were weakened. In 2013, LSP helped push through a law that required the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) to create rules controlling air pollution emitted by frac sand facilities. The 2013 law states simply: “The commissioner of the Pollution Control Agency shall adopt rules pertaining to the control of particulate emissions from silica sand projects.” The MPCA has yet to meet this mandate and has only a draft of proposed rules. Citizens have put in hundreds of hours on an advisory panel to provide input into these proposed rules. This 2017 legislation changes the language in the law from “shall” to “may.” In other words, the MPCA is no longer mandated to adopt such rules, which lessens the likelihood of them being implemented.
• Overall environmental policy was undercut. While LSP was largely successful on issues we prioritized, overall environmental policy suffered during the 2017 session of the Minnesota Legislature, and many provisions were enacted that move the state backwards. Most of the rollbacks were contained in the Environment Omnibus Finance Bill and the Jobs and Energy Finance Bill. LSP joined other organizations in signing onto letters calling for vetoes of these bills because of the rollbacks the Legislature included in them. These two letters to the Governor contain the worst of the provisions in the bills: MEP request for veto of the Environment and Natural Resources Omnibus Bill (SF844) and MEP Request for veto of Jobs Growth and Energy Affordability Bill (SF1456).