Senator Torrey Westrom (R-Elbow Lake), Chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, passed the committee’s omnibus bill on Wednesday to fund agriculture, rural development, and rural COVID recovery. This comprehensive legislation emphasizes expanding resources for Minnesota farmers and meat processors, agricultural growth and research, and strong broadband expansion through the state.
“This bill is a culmination of what the Agriculture Committee has been focusing on this Session – recovery and commonsense solutions to build up this important sector of Minnesota life. As the Chair of the Ag Committee, we stand up for rural Minnesotans and make the positive changes they need. This bill does that by funding important projects, removing wasteful spending, and vastly expanding broadband where we need it most – in the underserved areas. This was a bipartisan bill that passed unanimously out of the Ag Committee,” Westrom said.
Biofuels infrastructure is a major focus of this bill, allowing retail petroleum distributors to sell higher blends of biofuels. This investment will increase hometown stations selling homegrown fuels.
Further, this bill funds the Border-to-Border Broadband Grant program at $40 million over the next two fiscal years. Rural Minnesota has faced the brunt of lack of Internet access, and this funding will develop permanent broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved areas. Minnesota contains large segments of the state that fall into the categories of unserved and underserved. This significant funding from the legislature matches the critical need that has become apparent this year.
“Broadband is essential to our way of life. This has become even more clear over the past year as Minnesotans have struggled to work remotely and navigate Covid-19. If students can only access school online, it is imperative that accessibility to an internet connection is widely available. Funding broadband is addressing the issue head-on and will help rural Minnesotans flourish,” Westrom remarked.
Farm safety and farmer mental health are also funded in this budget. Grants funding farm safety will provide grain bin safety equipment to farmers. Mental health outreach on farms and additional mental health services are included, which continues funding for the Minnesota Farm and Rural Helpline, a 24-hour crisis hotline.
Included in this bill is funding for the Agricultural Growth, Research, and Innovation Program (AGRI), which will invest in county fairs, livestock investment grants, beginning farmers grants, and food access programs, among many other projects. COVID has impacted many in the agricultural community, notably in the meat processing sector; this bill appropriates money to facilitate the startup, modernization, or expansion of meat, poultry, egg, and milk processing facilities. The aim of this funding is to increase the number of small meat processors and allow those existing processors to expand production. This will help local businesses start or expand in our communities, providing vital services to rural areas. They will provide jobs, broaden the tax base, increase the number of processing options for farmers, make our food supply system more resilient, and provide more purchasing options for consumers.
After passing the Agriculture Committee, this bill will head to Finance, followed by the Senate Floor for a full debate and vote.