Minnesota farmers whose crops were stunted by one of the driest seasons in decades have been waiting six months for state help.
The need hasn't gone away and costs continue to rise, farmers and ranchers said this week as state legislators inched closer to distributing the long-awaited drought relief.
"The impact of the drought is so long-lasting," said Rachel Gray, who raises cattle in the northern Minnesota city of Blackduck. "This not being passed is detrimental. Even though the amount they are talking about is not going to make farmers and ranchers whole, it does give us a little bump, and maybe some wiggle room to buy a little extra hay and hold on until we get grass in June."
The DFL-controlled House approved more than $10 million in grants and loans for farmers Thursday. In the Senate, where Republicans hold the majority, the agriculture committee signed off Wednesday on $8 million for drought relief. But significant differences between the two bills are holding up a deal.
House Democrats added another $13.3 million to their bill for the Department of Natural Resources. It would be used to replace drought-killed tree seedlings, plant shade trees, provide tree-watering equipment and improve water efficiency.
"We lost millions of trees during the drought. We are still going to be losing them. This money helps restore those and helps out our forest products industry," said Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul.
The House passed the measure with bipartisan support, 101-33.
The Senate bill doesn't include the additional DNR money. Senators, meanwhile, reduced how much they originally planned to distribute in farmer loans. Instead, they added money that could help test for the rapidly spreading avian flu, as outbreaks have been recently reported in Iowa and South Dakota. Republicans also added some funding for deer farmers who lost revenue as the state restricted their movement to prevent the spread of chronic wasting disease.
The Senate measure had bipartisan support in the Agriculture Committee, with both sides stressing that drought relief is overdue as the number of livestock farmers in the state continues to decline.
Farmers are "just going week to week to find enough feed stock for their cattle," said Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, who is the Senate bill sponsor and grew up on a dairy farm. "This is not going to be, by any means, replacing all of the costs that they've had, but [is] a shot in the arm to help," he said.
Westrom said he hopes the Senate will vote on the bill next week. DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman said a conference committee will try to sort through the differences afterward.
"The Senate takes care of a few of the people who were hurt, and we take care of more people, and they don't include anything on climate," Hortman said Thursday, referring to the two proposals.
Westrom said he would like to reach a deal by the end of March. He said he fears the House's $13.3 million DNR funding proposal will "hijack" the farm-drought measure. "That might be a worthwhile proposal, but not to drag down the speed of this for our farmers," he said.
DFL Gov. Tim Walz initially pitched $10 million in drought relief during a visit to a farm last September, with the goal of getting it done during a legislative special session. The special session never happened, and Walz told farmers at a virtual advocacy event Wednesday that it is an "embarrassment" the money has yet to be approved.
He called House Democrats' DNR proposal wise, but like Westrom, Walz said he doesn't want it to hold up money for farmers. The governor said he would immediately sign a bill focused solely on farmer drought relief.
"If it needs to be separated from some of the DNR environmental pieces, we can fight that fight another day. I think it's more important now to move the resources," Walz said. After talking with House and Senate leaders this week, the governor said there is not a lot of movement on other issues at the Capitol, but the farm relief measure "seems very, very positive."
Even if legislators meet Westrom's goal of completing a bill by the end of the month, the money will need to go through a process to be distributed to farmers and ranchers.
Meanwhile, Gray, the cattle farmer from Blackduck, said she is seeing fertilizer and fuel costs climb. Last year the extremely dry season meant her family wasn't able to grow the crops needed to feed their livestock. She had to ship 500 heifers to a southern Minnesota feedlot and said the money that normally goes to feed, supplies and veterinary bills has shifted elsewhere.
"The impact is far-reaching," she said. "As farmers and ranchers, without a drought package and without some sort of relief, we're not spending what we normally would spend in town, which is impacting our small towns, it's impacting our businesses."