FOLEY, Minn. - As a couple hundred cows contentedly grazed on feed Thursday, occasionally letting out a gentle "moo" or two, Gov. Tim Walz lauded the bipartisan cooperation that led to the passing of the agriculture bill in May.
Walz, along with Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen and a handful of state legislators, toured the Roadside Acres farm to see how the bill's drought-relief funding will be used and learn how broadband has improved the farm's operations. He then had a ceremonial bill-signing atop a stack of hay bales.
"Whenever we provide support to agriculture, we're providing support to families. We're providing support to food security. We're providing support to the entire economy," Walz said. "That's touching millions of Minnesotans in the products that they buy."
The ag spending package includes more than $8 million for grants to livestock and specialty-crop producers affected by last year's drought, $5 million for tree planting and $2.5 million to the Rural Finance Authority's disaster loan account.
The bill will distribute $50 million over two years for broadband expansion and gives the state direction on how to spend more than $200 million in federal funds from the rescue and infrastructure bills.
"If you look at the bill, it's largely what the Senate bill passed in the first place. We led the charge on fighting to put $210 million of the federal money committed to rural broadband. The House's original bill did not," said Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, who worked with House leaders to get the final bill passed. "We stood firm for the money being committed and dedicated to rural broadband."
Westrom said broadband is the modern-day electricity — needed for farms, businesses and home-based employees to thrive. Without the bill's commitment to rural broadband, Westrom worried the federal money would be whittled by smaller projects with a metro focus.
"It seems to be with the makeup of the House right now, that rural Minnesota gets left behind," Westrom said.
Westrom said he and Rep. Mike Sundin, DFL-Esko, chair of the House Agriculture Committee, ordered a few large pizzas at the Capitol and congenially hashed out the final details of the bill in May. Westrom said that's what folks in rural Minnesota do — get together over a meal. It was one of the few budget bills passed this session.
The bill also allocates money to create a soil health financial-assistance program, increase funding for ag research and help reduce barriers to purchasing farmland.
Farmers can apply for drought-relief grants through Wednesday. The state has already received 1,000 applications, according to Petersen.
Mark and Shelley Czech run the 5,300-acre farm that has about 700 dairy cows and 1,200 beef cattle, and grows corn, soybeans, alfalfa and wheat. Mark Czech's father bought the farm in the 1950s and Mark took it over in the 1980s. He's hoping to pass the business on to one of his six grandchildren or an employee.
Broadband was installed at the farm about five years ago. Now, Czech uses the expanded access and technology to track vehicles in the fields, tell in real-time when feed mix ingredients aren't at the proper percentages, and map nutrients so he doesn't waste chemicals — which also helps protect the environment from runoff.
Walz estimates it will take about $300 million to commit to border-to-border broadband in the state. He said the state has enough money with no tax increases to complete the project, but said plans still need to be finalized.