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Winds shifting in agriculture

Consider the farmer trying to take some action regarding a ditch on his own property, says Rep. Paul Anderson, R-Starbuck. That one move could require clearance from a veritable alphabet soup of state agencies, including the Departments of Health and Natural Resources, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and the Board of Water and Soil Resources (BOWSR). The farmer would also probably need federal approval, not to mention sign-off from the local watershed authority.

“I don’t care which one does it, it would be a lot more appropriate if one agency could make the call,” Anderson said. “There gets to be a whole — there are multiple layers of agencies.”

The thicket of regulatory bureaucracy is just one example of the kind of complicated regulatory scheme that Anderson wants to address in January, when he will assume the chairmanship of the House Agriculture Policy Committee. Anderson, now entering his fifth term in office, said the streamlining of permitting and regulations as a general theme was at the top of his priority list, though he said he was still arranging initial meetings with the Department of Agriculture.

In a budgeting year, as 2015 is, the topic of farming seems an easy prospect to fall by the wayside: The whole of the agriculture budget takes up about one-half of 1 percent of the state budget, according to Minnesota Farmers Union lobbyist Thom Petersen. But the House Republican caucus is still expected to take agricultural issues seriously, especially given the overwhelmingly rural nature of the party’s swing-district victories this election cycle.

Anderson, for his part, said he expects farming debates to take up less time and oxygen than other, more contentious budget questions. He observed that the agriculture omnibus package was the one financial bill agreed to before the 2011 government shutdown, when the state last operated under divided government.

“That’s kind of been the luxury about agriculture,” he said. “It usually kind of leads the way in showing how to get things done in a fairly nonpartisan way.”

That acknowledgement aside, Anderson and others foresee a number of changed priorities in the agriculture realm now that Republicans control the lower chamber.

On the topic of water, the incoming chair said he thinks concerns about resource exhaustion owing to farming might be overblown.

“I’m not so sure there’s scientific evidence saying there’s a problem anywhere in terms of shrinking water supplies,” Anderson said. “Maybe in the metro area, because of the population. But I think what the DNR has to do is show, by good science, that there is a problem.”

Likewise, observers expect less discussion on the House side about the dwindling population of pollinators such as bees, a concern of key DFL legislators’ over the past biennium.

The GOP’s ascendance could also mean heightened interest in MPCA’s current handling of large dairy farms, especially given the recent citizens board decision to require an environmental impact statement (EIS) for a proposed 9,000-cow facility.

Doug Busselman, public policy director for the Minnesota Farm Bureau, said the board’s decision could lead to a “chilling effect” and discourage future farm projects from launching in the state.

“It seems to be something that kind of came out of the blue,” Busselman said. “I think there may need to be some discussions [in the Legislature] as to what the criteria would be for there being that type of a process.”

On another brewing conflict, the Republican victory might have effectively quashed debate for the time being. Busselman said there were several bills “queued up” that would have added labels on genetically modified organisms (GMO) in food products; both he and Petersen said that prospect now seems unlikely to get serious consideration.

Two newly organized players on opposite ends of that debate have started public campaigns and sought professional messaging help. The Right to Know Minnesota coalition, which counts a number of Twin Cities co-op grocery stores among its sponsors, has retained a pair of lobbyists from the Goff Public firm.

On the other side, a new group called A Greater Minnesota (AGM) retained the services of Himle Rapp & Co. The new outfit was formed by the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council, the Minnesota Pork Producers Association and the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, among other existing agriculture interest groups.

AGM also involved itself in electoral politics, challenging legislative candidates to sign its “five-point pledge.” The group’s opposition to “pseudo-science labeling proposals regarding GMOs” was one element of that policy platform. Other points call for environmental policies “based on sound science … [which] do not put Minnesota farmers and companies at a competitive disadvantage,” as well as “responsible regulation and … voluntary practices” from farmers to insure food safety.

Perry Aasness, executive director of the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council, also pointed out that several dozen newly elected members had taken the five-point pledge.

“I think the message, hopefully, that both parties took from [the AGM campaign] is that rural Minnesota, and these food and agriculture issues, they shouldn’t be ignored,” Aasness said.

Ultimately, some 65 legislative candidates agreed to all five points, including both Anderson and Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, who will take back the gavel in the agriculture finance committee after two years of DFL control.

Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, the outgoing chair of the House Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Finance Committee, said she had sought to craft a budget that avoided earmarks, instead giving the agriculture department discretion over the awarding of grant funds. Wagenius said she also wanted an agriculture budget that applied statewide, without regional deference.

“I don’t know that [Hamilton] would go down the path of doing regional budgets, but some have suggested that,” Wagenius said. “Though, people say all kinds of things around the Capitol.”

As for policy, Anderson said he plans to begin his committee’s work with informational hearings on various topics, naming recent shortages of propane and diesel fuel, as well as issues relating to the freight rail system, as possible jumping off points. Despite his acknowledged differences with the outgoing Democratic gavel-holders, he reiterated his hope that the two sides would work well together in committee.

“In the past,” Anderson said, “it’s been nonpartisan. I think we all realize the importance agriculture has to the economy, and to health.”

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