Growers tell their story to the new crop of state lawmakers

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

Minnesota’s corn organizations devoted a night and a day to educating state legislators in Saint Paul this year.

The majority of directors for Minnesota Corn Growers Association and the district representatives of Minnesota Corn Research & Promotion Council attended an evening reception March 22 where they met informally and got to know state elected officials. The following day these farmer-leaders shared their stories with lawmakers, and met briefly with the governor. The day also included a productive meeting with the commissioners for agriculture and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

More than thirty lawmakers attended the evening reception.

“It was a lighter occasion, just a chance to meet and have a friendly exchange,” said Greg Schwarz, a farmer in Le Sueur and president of Minnesota Corn Growers Association. “Despite the session and all the committee hearings–they are in full swing right now–we still managed to get a good number of folks out. Even more important, we had several freshmen and metro-area representatives. It’s always easy to talk to our own people from outstate who know our issues pretty well. This was our opportunity to make a connection with people who aren’t familiar with farming and the issues that are important to us.”

The number one issue, according to Schwarz and other grower leaders, is regulation.

“The good news is that regulation is well on its way to being a priority both for the administration and the legislature,” said Schwarz. “Governor Dayton’s first order of business was to issue his executive order about streamlining permitting and making regulation more efficient and business-friendly. This affects all businesses, including corn growers. The Republican leadership in the legislature has set the same priority and have stated they want PCA to expedite the process of getting permits out to businesses and making Minnesota more business friendly.”

The brief meeting of grower leaders with Governor Dayton was positive and reassuring.

“The governor made it clear he understands how important ag is to Minnesota and the Midwest,” said Schwarz. “He knows we survived the recession better than many places because of the farm economy. The question for all of us is, what can we do to keep farming going, to keep more dollars here, to keep more jobs here? His recommendation is to finish the (small ethanol) producer payment this year, so we can start on the next big thing. Both the House and Senate Agriculture committee leaders understand that as well.”

MCGA and MCR&PC grower leaders are actively looking for the next big program that can provide the kind of rural development success that farm-based energy. Whether, once found, lawmakers and executive branch leaders can be convinced to make room in state budgets will be the next challenge.

The other public policy priority for farmers is “the ag special” — the informal name for the legislative authorization of spending on the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, University of Minnesota Extension Service, Soil and Water Conservation and the agriculture-related programs from the University and other government agencies.
“Minnesota Corn Growers Association and Minnesota Corn Research & Promotion Council fund a lot of research through Extension,” Schwarz noted. “We’d like to preserve more of that funding than we see in proposed budgets. What we tried to convey to the legislators is that, once you lose researchers you lose the ability to get good things going for Minnesota farmers. We can’t leverage our funds and make them go as far. The ag special is being cut at a higher rate, both at the U and in the Department of Ag budget, compared to the rest of the spending by the state. Our message has been ‘fair is fair and this is a disproportionate cut. Extension is not just bricks and mortar–it’s people, and once they are gone it’s very hard to replace them and rebuild that resource.’”

Schwarz noted that many of the projects funded cooperatively by the state and by farmer organizations like MCGA have to do with production stewardship issues that benefit everyone–making farmers more efficient so they produce more commodities while reducing the environmental impact of agriculture.

“We also met with Commissioner of Agriculture Dave Frederickson and Pollution Control Agency Commissioner Paul Aasen—it was a very good meeting that really put some of our members at ease,” said Schwarz. “Frederickson spoke of working together to make sure that cuts can be done while maintaining programs. He said he would work together with us to preserve dollars in the areas that would ensure we keep an effective program.

Commissioner Aasen underlined his committed to the success of the governor’s new executive order calling for reducing permit turnaround time.

“He gave us the current percentages of permits meeting and not meeting the goals of the executive order,” said Schwarz. “Even now, they are already getting closer to meeting those goals that were set out. He talked about what are the PCAs priorities dealing with water — to protect and to enhance water quality. He reassured us that their approach is practical. They will do what can be done to work well with business while maintaining their commitment to their mandates to protect the environment and the people of Minnesota.”

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