By Maureen McMullen, Forum News Service
Adding new commodities to Minnesota’s farming industry accounts for a portion of state agriculture funding proposed by the House, Senate and Gov. Mark Dayton.
Industrial hemp is among the new crops eyed for growth.
All three proposals include funding that could be used to grow and process industrial hemp, which is illegal unless a farmer is in a pilot project. It is a non-potent relative to marijuana that can be used in products ranging from rope to foods.
Last year, Minnesota farmers dedicated 40 acres in seven sites to grow the crop with through a pilot program.
This year, Deputy Agriculture Commissioner Matthew Wohlman said, his department more than 40 applications to grow hemp on about 2,155 acres of land.
“It was the first year and we learned a lot,” he said. “A lot of work we had to do was to negotiate with the federal government for permits to secure the seed, licensing and approving the growers, and tracking the growers statewide.”
The Minnesota Department of Agriculture received a one-time bundle of $250,000 for its hemp pilot program in 2016.
The level of funding being considered this year varies among the proposals.
Dayton’s two-year budget calls for $400,000 to aid in research and regulation of a statewide industrial hemp pilot project.
The House bill allows a one-time appropriation of $250,000 over two years to help along the pilot program.
The Senate bill does not include funding specific for hemp, but Senate Agriculture Chair Torrey Westrom said he sees opportunities for hemp farmers through his bill’s $25 million agriculture growth, research and innovation fund.
The fund includes $6 million for grants to help farmers explore value-added crops like hemp, as well as $700,000 to expand market opportunities for the state’s agriculture.
“Industrial hemp was widespread before World War II,” Westrom said. “It made a lot of ropes and products, but with it being listed on the federal narcotics for so many decades, we’re kind of having to rebuild that industry.”
Another $6 million included in the fund would help expand livestock operations, which Westrom said could be used for “unorthodox” industries like shrimp farming.
The fund in the House bill totals just under the $20 million Dayton appropriated in his bill for the fund.
Dayton’s $127 million agriculture proposal makes up just a small amount of his nearly $46 billion total two-year budget, but representatives with the Agriculture Department say the funding pays for important operations, like addressing agricultural emergencies.
One struggle Minnesota farmers face is a loss of pollinators such as bees.
Dayton proposed $1 million for the department to research factors harming pollinators and to work with farmers to develop best management practices.
The fund appears in neither the Senate nor House bill.
Westrom said legislators have yet to be convinced of the need for the account.
“The stakeholders, I think, need to get together more to come up with a conclusive plan,” he said. “That’s a big, wide issue that nobody’s got firm answers for what the solution is and what exactly the problem is caused by.”
Although his bill omitted the governor’s fund, House Agriculture Chairman Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, proposed a $500,000 account for the University of Minnesota to research the issues facing pollinators.
Hamilton said the state would be “getting the cart before the horse” by hiring new personnel before more research is complete.
“We’re not hiring on additional people, places, processes and protocols when we don’t have the answers first to put them into place,” he said. “My perspective is, we don’t need to be hiring these people and having additional overhead until we actually know what it is we’re going to be implementing.”
The House agriculture committee unanimously voted in favor of Hamilton’s bill Friday, March 24.
“Historically, agriculture has always worked in a strong bipartisan basis in good faith,” Wohlman said. “Both the House and Senate have low targets, and that will be difficult to work with, but we’re still having good conversations.”