ST. PAUL, MN – Today, the Minnesota Senate passed a significant bipartisan agriculture, broadband, and drought relief bill to help Minnesota farmers and families. The legislation, authored by Senator Torrey Westrom (R-Alexandria), works to expand broadband funding, provide relief to farmers still struggling from the effects of last year’s historic drought, and addresses urgent concerns in our agriculture sector, including the ongoing Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) crisis.
“Our bill tackles the urgent issues facing our farmers and helps thousands of Minnesotans, especially in rural areas, get access to reliable internet,” Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Westrom said. “Through smart investments, we address the challenges impacting our Agriculture sector including animal disease outbreaks, such as bird flu, and processing issues. Importantly, this bill makes the single largest investment in the Border-to-Border Broadband Grant Program in Minnesota history. Not only will our legislation do a lot to help hard-working Minnesota farmers and families, this bill will help us bridge the technological divide in Greater Minnesota.”
Investing in Connecting Minnesotans with Broadband
The legislation directs over $210 million, the bulk of which comes from federal funds, to improve Minnesota broadband access across the state. This is in addition to the $70 million in federal funds that the legislature directed last session. This includes up to $30 million for the Lower Population Density Pilot Program to connect hard to reach unserved areas, up to $15 million for the Line Extension Program to connect difficult to reach individual homes, up to $15 million for updated broadband mapping, and the remaining funds to the successful Border-to-Border Broadband grant program.
Investments in the Border-to-Border Broadband grant program have become increasingly important to connect all Minnesotans to the modern economy. Roughly 240,000 Minnesota households are without reliable internet access including 25% of rural Minnesota households.
“Broadband has become a necessity for economic development, education, health care, and more,” Westrom said. “These broadband investments are critical in helping us compete with the rest of the world. Our bill will make a profound difference in helping Minnesotans get the connectivity they need.”
The bill was passed by the House late Saturday night and by the Senate on Sunday. The legislation now awaits Governor Walz’s signature to become law.
Supporting Minnesota Agriculture
The legislation appropriates $8.1 million in drought relief grants for livestock and specialty crop farmers to help them recover from last year’s drought. Furthermore, the bill includes $2.5 million to the Rural Finance Authority (RFA) Revolving Loan account to help Minnesota farmers, with relief prioritized for those affected by drought.
In addition to the urgent need for drought relief, Minnesota farmers are facing animal disease threats from African Swine Fever (ASF) to the bird flu outbreak. To prevent an agricultural disaster, this package includes $1.5 million for the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory (VDL) at the University of Minnesota to purchase equipment to test for avian influenza, African Swine Fever, chronic wasting disease (CWD), and other animal diseases. The bill also includes $3 million for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Emergency Account with funding going to animal disease testing and response. This is on top of the $1 million in funding the legislature already provided to the account this session, however it has been expended due to the avian influenza outbreak.
The bill also includes funding for the Forever Green initiative at the University of Minnesota which supports cover crops, perennial crops, and winter-annual crops to enhance water and soil quality so farmers can help the environment while also raising an economically viable product. The legislation also includes one-time funding for continuing construction of the soybean processing and research facility at the Ag Innovation Campus in Crookston.
Finally, the bill builds on past programs successfully championed by Senate Republicans to support livestock processing. This includes investments in meat cutting and butchery training programs; money to start, modernize or expand meat, poultry, dairy, and egg processing facilities; and grants for training high school students and employees of small processors.