Walz, top lawmakers to push emergency financial aid for drought-plagued farmers

Gov. Tim Walz and a top lawmakers say they will support an emergency financial relief package for Minnesota farmers during a September special session.

The politicians spoke at FarmFest, the state's biggest farm show in Redwood County, where they got an earful from farmers whose crops are withering and ranchers whose feed supplies are running low. As of last week, 75 percent of Minnesota is in a severe or extreme drought.

Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen said he expected relief to come from both the state Legislature and the federal government. Some of the aid is logistical, like opening public lands for grazing. The rest is financial, helping to fill the gap between losses and what insurance doesn't cover.

Livestock and specialty crop farmers are hardest hit because their insurance generally covers less than corn and soybean farmers. Most of the western half of the state is severely affected, while southeast Minnesota is faring better because it has rained more there, agriculture officials said.

FarmFest draws a who's who of Minnesota politicians, and it was hard to mistake the requests for relief coming from attendees.

"We really need to push that envelope because it is going to be severe," Minnesota Farmers Union President Gary Wertish said in an interview. "There will be some farmers that will be driven off the farm through no choice of their own."

House Speaker Melissa Hortman said a financial relief package could be modeled after previous aid that lawmakers approved after flooding.

"This drought is clearly a natural disaster that merits a state response," said Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park. "How we distribute aid and who exactly needs aid really depends on the market and the harvest and as soon as we know enough, we’ll start to put a package together. There are lot of unanswered questions right now."

Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka attended the farm show a day earlier, on Tuesday.

Walz said he would support an aid package in the September special session, when lawmakers will also decide how to spend $250 million in COVID-19 pandemic pay for frontline workers.

The federal government is capable of a bigger relief package than Minnesota can provide. Yet Walz revealed a challenge: until this week, the Biden administration's drought focus has been on the wildfires roaring in the western U.S., and the administration has only recently come to understand Minnesota's farm impact, he said.

"I think it’s just starting to sink in that it’s in the farm country and starting to permeate more," Walz told reporters. "I think some of the conversations over the last three days the (U.S. Department of Agriculture) has had with our ag department shows they’re starting to ratchet it up."

Walz was on a virtual meeting with western governors and President Joe Biden last week. In the meeting, Biden noted an irony in the drought that "the whole country looks to Minnesota as the land of all those lakes."

The administration has not opened federal Conservation Resource Program lands to grazing for ranchers who are unable to grow forage during the drought to feed their livestock. Minnesota has started to open some Department of Natural Resources lands to farmers, Petersen said.