COVID-19 provided unique challenges to the agricultural economy. The crisis struck workers in meat processing facilities across the country, resulting in difficult decisions for farmers. We are still in the middle of the pandemic, and its impact will not be completely known for some time. However, there will surely be lasting impacts on farmers and rural communities.
The Agriculture Finance Committee proposal attempted to address some of these challenges by providing grants to livestock processors as a result of COVID-19. Money was also provided for mental health assistance and outreach to help farmers and rural communities dealing with the struggling economy they are facing.
A group of bipartisan legislators also worked on providing resources for farm safety. There were several farm-related tragedies related to grain bins. Money is proposed to provide education and the development of new technology to help ensure these tragedies do not occur in the future.
Housing advocates and others had many proposals that were sidelined as a result of pandemic. More than 600,000 people filed for unemployment in response to COVID-19. As many were unable to work or collect unemployment their bills accumulated. Understanding this reality, when Governor Walz issued the Stay at Home Executive Order he also postponed evictions and foreclosure proceedings. Many believed this was necessary to protect the public’s health and ensure people had a home even if they could not work.
COVID-19 provisions passed
Farmer-lender mediation: The enforcement of debts was delayed if secured by qualifying agricultural property by extending the mediation period under the Farmer Lender Mediation Act. Late in session, it was further delayed to 150 days for qualifying individuals. (HF 4556; HF 4599)
Food shelves: Many people were temporarily or permanently displaced from their jobs because of COVID-19. In recognition of the wave of new applicants for unemployment, legislators appropriated an additional $1.25 million for food shelves. This additional money will provide more meals for people while also helping farmers by buying their products. (HF 4556)
Non-COVID provisions passed
Omnibus agriculture finance bill
As a result of the updated budget forecast, the House and Senate were forced to find money within their budgets or use federal resources allocated to the state in response to COVID-19 to fund important priorities. In all, $600,000 in federal resources were used and additional resources were reallocated.
The notable projects funded include:
- Grain Storage Safety Grants: Tragically, grain bin storage accidents have spiked, resulting in farmers across the state and country losing their lives. In response, $100,000 for the grain storage safety program was appropriated. The funding is divided by providing $50,000 for grain bin safety curriculum development and $50,000 for the creation of a digital application that will remotely power off a grain storage facility.
- Farm Advocates and Outreach: As financial stress has increased over the past several years, access to mental support in rural communities has become more crucial. In response, $60,000 was appropriated for farm advocates and another $40,000 for additional community outreach.
- Veterinary Diagnostic Lab: $675,000 was made available for a grant to the University of Minnesota for the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory (VDL). The money will help purchase equipment and software that would increase capacity that will be critical to a foreign animal disease outbreak response.
- Retail Food Handler Safety: $125,000 was made available for grants to retail food handlers for the deployment of protective equipment to meet CDC guidance to retrofit retail locations and provide personal protective equipment to employees. (HF 4490)
Omnibus agriculture policy bill
The omnibus agricultural policy bill passed the Senate on a vote of 67 – 0. Several provisions were adopted relative to hemp seed and the processing of hemp. Additionally, language was adopted to create the Seed Advisory Committee. The committee will provide guidance to the Commissioner of Agriculture on designated seed species as restricted or prohibited. (HF 4285).
Rural Finance Authority funding
The Rural Finance Authority (RFA) ran out of money in late February, and legislators responded by appropriating $50 million. The funding for this program is especially important during this time of extreme weather conditions, historically low commodity prices, and most recently struggles related to COVID-19. These resources are not limited to emergencies but can also be used for a variety of financing options for farmers. (HF 2959)
Provisions not passed
Housing and Eviction Assistance: In the final hours of the legislative session, Senate Republicans bargained with people’s ability to live in their homes. They wanted to exchange $100 million in Housing Infrastructure Bonds and $100 million in emergency housing assistance for policy provisions that would forfeit the safety of children and the efficiency of an improved building codes. Senate Republicans knew such a bill would not earn the house approval or the signature of Governor Walz. However, they pushed forward with the bill anyway. (HF 2542)
Special Session Update
During Special Session, there was renewed hope that an agreement could be reached on assistance. However, Republicans continued to link damaging policy provisions to funding for Housing, scuttling any possibility of agreement to be reached.
School Broadband Access, Telemedicine, Border-to-Border Grants: Money for broadband access in schools, rural areas, and telemedicine is an issue that had failed to cross the finish line during regular session. It also failed again to pass during special session.
While it failed to reach Governor Walz, it passed the Senate on a vote of 67 – 0 during special session. The bill would have used federal funds to provide $15 million for students who lack access broadband, $2 million for providers to purchase software and equipment for telemedicine, and $10 million for the Border-to-Border broadband grant program. (SF 6)