A bill in the Minnesota Legislature would impose a four-year moratorium on large new dairy farms or expansions.

The bill, introduced this week by Reps. Ami Wazlawik, Todd Lippert and Jamie Becker-Finn, would forbid the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency or counties from issuing permits for “constructing or expanding a dairy-animal operation that will be capable of holding more than 1,000 animal units after construction or expansion.”

The proposal comes amid fear that a handful of rapidly expanding dairies are hastening the exits of small dairies across the state and country.

While any new legislation is unlikely to get traction as the novel coronavirus spreads in the United States, the bill spotlights one of the central debates in agriculture today — whether and how much to protect smaller farms from the market pressures brought by large farms.

Minnesota lost 12% of its dairies in 2019 as about 328 dairies went out of business. Even so, milk production in the state is increasing thanks in part to the expansion of large, efficient dairies such as Morris-based Riverview LLP.

“Something needs to be done. The idea is to have a timeout,” said Paul Sobocinski, a hog farmer who also works for the Land Stewardship Project.

The legislators who sponsored the moratorium could not immediately be reached for comment, but the bill was crafted by the policy arm of the Land Stewardship Project, Sobocinski said.

Hog farming consolidated in the 1990s for all but a handful of small hog producers, said Sobocinski, who raises 500 hogs near Wabasso for Niman Ranch.

“Most of the independent hog producers are no longer in business,” he said. “It’s pretty obvious that the same thing is happening in dairy.”

The 1,000-animal-unit cap would mean a little over 700 dairy cows. The four-year moratorium — which would end June 2024 — is up for debate, Sobocinski said.

“We’re not hard and fast that these are the perfect numbers or anything,” he said. “We just think there needs to be a pause.”