September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.
Business-to-business taxes, competitive overtime pay, environmental regulations, and the dairy research and teaching education center were the main topics of discussion when some 50 producers met with senators and representatives from both parties during the day-long event.
The legislators were receptive to the farmers' visits, listened carefully, and asked thoughtful questions.
The day included dozens of planned face-to-face meetings with senators and representatives individually, the opportunity for two group members to address the Senate Jobs, Agriculture and Rural Development Committee Hearing, and a meeting with Governor Dayton's Senior Policy Advisor Molly Pederson and Assistant Commissioner of Agriculture Matt Wohlman.
David Ward and David Buck, members of Minnesota Milk and Cooperative Network, outlined dairy's four major concerns when they addressed the senate hearing. Though those same concerns may have come up in different order in the individual meetings, they were the theme of almost every interaction.
Business-to-business taxes-with special concerns about sales tax on farm equipment repairs-headed the discussion and received the most favorable response.
David Buck said, "The repair tax hits unfairly on smaller farms-hitting those who can least afford to pay it the hardest."
Senators Kevin Dahle (DFL), Torrey Westrom (R), and Bruce Anderson (R) all supported repeal of the tax. Westrom said, "I authored the bill to repeal. I will try my best. It will be easier as long as the budget has a surplus. I feel there's a growing momentum for tax repeal."
In talking to Senator Dahle, Ted Radintz of Minnesota Milk said, "The tax hurts starting producers who use older equipment and can't do their own repairs."
A tax on warehouse storage, set to go into effect April 1, also came up in discussions with Senator Anderson.
His response: "Get rid of it. I think the governor will stop it. The fact it was put in place to begin with is maniacal. We're starting to see a buildup without raising taxes. Warehouse people are going out of state if this stays in place."
Overtime pay for agricultural workers was another hot button issue, with producers noting that Minnesota is the only state of the eight states in the Upper Midwest that limits the work week to 48 hours before overtime goes into affect.
Producer Rick Smith told Senator Dahle, "Surrounding states don't have it. We're an island by ourselves. Minnesota is at a disadvantage with other states having straight time for ag."
Radintz said, "We would love to have the exemption that other states have. That could put us on par with them. Farm work is of a seasonal nature."
Producer Charles Krause told Senator Anderson that Minnesota is at a complete disadvantage, with dairy farmers who chose to move their operations to the Upper Midwest lining up just outside the state borders-in Iowa, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.
The move to increase the minimum wage was also up for discussion. Senator Westrom said, "I'm concerned the Democrats are stuck on $9.50. That's tough for every small business."
Producer Suzanne Vold said, "We want to pay good wages. Our wages are above (the minimum) but students start part-time and we're training them. Having training pay flexible is important."
Brant Groen, former ag instructor at Ridgewater College in Willmar, said, "Businesses will hire less and automate more."
Westrom said. "It's not fair. It forces your hand. Automation becomes cheaper. There will be casualties."
Concerns about environmental regulations came up repeatedly.
Radintz broached the issue with Senator Dahle. "There's a lot of vague language on how to get permits and determining what one can do seems daunting. We want to work with the legislature and agencies to be sure it's addressed."
When the issue was discussed with Senator Anderson, he asked, "Is there a state that does it better?"
To that, Krause responded, "South Dakota, Iowa, Wisconsin...."
Groen added, "It's overwhelming what producers face when they want to expand. Other states have people to walk them through it-that's needed in our state."
Frustration with an overwhelming permitting process can drive people out of dairying, as Krause said. "With the permitting process and everything else, young people go into crop farming. Livestock farming is so important to our state. Expansion creates economic activity for the community."
The producers explained that every dairy cow generates $25,000 in economic activity in the community-or $11.6 billion statewide. As they said, "It all starts with the cow."
"Minnesota has the infrastructure. We know how to handle 900,000 dairy cows. We're doing a better job of dealing with ag waste. We know the value of the manure our farms produce-and we have new ways of using it," Krause said to Senator Anderson.
Anderson expressed his concerns on the matter. "Environmentalists don't want us to be using our own property. We are a target. The Plan to Protect Biodiversity wants to make this an environmentally pure state. The DNR circumvents the legislature. We see that on the national level, too. I'm furious to see that happen. You, as farmers, are being squeezed. It's time to fight back. Tell your representatives, senators, and the governor to push back against environmental rules."
Groen noted the irony of the situation. "These farmers-I call them environmentalists. They don't want to hurt the environment. Besides, they raise most of the wildlife in the state."
To that, there were a few chuckles as the farmers meeting with Senator Anderson commented on the wildlife they've raised.
The fourth major concern discussed with the legislators was the Dairy Research, Teaching and Consumer Education Center.
In discussions with Senator Dahle, Smith noted that the center is in its very infant stages but that it could tie in to the college at Willmar.
"Minnesota stood as a leading research facility for many years, at St. Paul, but we're losing ground now," he said.
The research/teaching facility will be unique, as it would not be University-owned, but a partnership with the state and non-state funding contributors. It could provide hands-on training and real world experience for students and continuing education for farmers.
Other issues were also discussed in the face-to-face sessions. Among them, the propane situation, the shortage of ag teachers, Minnesota's slip to eighth place in the ranking of the most productive dairy states and increasing costs of feed and energy.
With Governor Mark Dayton not yet back at the Capitol following surgery, Senior Policy Advisor Molly Pederson met with the group in mid-afternoon. She advised group members to put it in writing for me to give to the Governor.
The day concluded with a Meet and Greet Reception when group members joined the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council to network with legislators and other industry stakeholders to continue their discussions.[[In-content Ad]]