Legislative reception draws a non-partisan crowd to talk turkey with farmers

Senator Keith Langseth, the oldest, and longest serving member of the Minnesota Legislature stood up at the Crowne Plaze Saint Paul last Wednesday night and thanked Minnesota Corn Growers Association for hosting its legislative reception, so that he and fellow state lawmakers could get to know their farmer constituents better and keep abreast of the latest issues impacting farmers.

Langseth didn’t waste time, but launched right into a question impacting farmers across the state—property taxes. He noted that his own property taxes on his farm land rose 18 percent this year and he explained that last year’s budget fix involved a shift. The state ended its homestead tax credit but, in order to limit the impact on homeowners they made a blanket reduction in the tax valuation of residential properties, and this meant that farm and commercial properties then shouldered more of the burden for local levies.

“That’s an issue we are going to revisit this year,” Langseth promised.

Rep. Rod Hamilton, chairman of the Agriculture and Rural Development Policy and Finance committee told the room of farmers and legislators, “We all have an open door policy…stop in and see us whenever you are here in St. Paul, or if you have a burning issue, please call us and let us know,”

The evening, held at the Kellogg meeting room and offering a buffet and refreshments in exchange for a donation to cover the expense, was a great success.

MCGA President John Mages, a farmer in Belgrade, felt that all the lawmakers were receptive to conversations about farm issues and hearing the farmer viewpoint.

The event did get off to a slow start, because the House of Representatives remained in session into the evening, debating bills related to tort reform. Toward 8 o’clock, the session adjourned and a score of representatives appeared, to join the dozen or more senators already present and enjoying conversations with grower leaders from every part of Minnesota.

“This is an informal setting, which is a great way to meet these lawmakers and spend some time getting to know them and telling them about our issues,” said Jean Knakmuhs, a director for Minnesota Corn Growers Association. In addition to farming near Walnut Grove, she is a loan officer with Rabo AgriFinance.  She said, “Unlike an appointment at their office at the capital, here, there are no time constraints and the next person on the schedule is not waiting outside the door.”

Senator John Howe opined “We need more people with a farm background at the Legislature.”

Today’s demographic realities make that unlikely, so the MCGA legislative reception, the annual “Day On The Hill” event and informal visits throughout the session, have to make up the lack of direct connection of many lawmakers to farming.

Senator Doug Magnus said that now that the state had sorted out its finances and gotten past the $5 billion dollar deficit that loomed last year, the Legislature can concentrate on “the three E’s that are vital to agriculture: Energy, Exports and the Environment.”

Exports will play a key role in farm prosperity in the coming decades because Minnesota’s farmers have the know-how and the productive land, and the world will need more food every day.

“In the next 40 years, the earth has to produce more food than we have produced in the past 10,000 years—supporting what you (farmers do) and supporting exports” will be critical to ensuring that this happens, Magnus said.

The environment is truly a hot-button issue in agriculture, Magnus acknowledged and he asserted that the farmers’ story of all the good work they are already doing in conservation is an important story that needs to reach the wider public so that public policy regarding farmers remains balanced.

“Our biggest issue right now is water quality,” said MCGA President Mages. “We (the farmers) are working on it. We are conservationists and we do want to preserve the quality of the environment. We will continue to do more and improve, but we will also fight to keep conservation on a voluntary basis. Every farmer wants to be involved, but not every farm is the same and treating every farm the same will not help us achieve our environmental goals as a state.”

Republican State Rep. Paul Torkelson and Democratic State Senator Terry Morrow both weighed in on the recent controversy regarding a Memo of Understanding between the federal government and the state of Minnesota, to launch a pilot program to help direct investments in farm conservation that will improve water quality. Both lawmakers told the grower leaders that it is important for them to participate in the process and have a voice in the program that is shaped by the technical advisory committee now being drawn together, in order to have a say in the design of the new conservation program.

In addition to legislators, a host of state government officials, including Paul Aasen (director, MPCA), and Matt Wohlman (Assistant Commissioner, MDA) as well as staff members from US Senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken attended the evening, among them former House Ag chairman Al Juhnke, who is currently Senator Franken’s ag and energy field representative.

Leaders of other farmer groups and agribusinesses rounded out the group, with appearances by Perry Aasness, executive director of Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation, and Sarah Thorn, government affairs manager for DuPont/Pioneer.

 

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