There's a series of television ads in Minnesota that feature farm families talking about how they support the region's economy. But the ads also say strict zoning laws are making it hard for farms to expand. The Minnesota Farm and Food Coalition developed the ad campaign, and claims the state's livestock industry is in danger, in part because some local governments fight farm expansions. The coalition is made up of 11 farm groups, including the Cattlemen's Association, the Pork Producers Association and the Minnesota Farm Bureau.
Kevin Paap, President of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, wants people to know his group feels there's only one way Minnesota's livestock industry is going to stay healthy.
"We need all the livestock we can get in Minnesota. We need to do it responsibly, we need to do it with best management practices, but we need to have an environment in the state where we can not only keep the livestock industry we have got, but also to grow it," Paap said.
Paap would like to see a reform of the local zoning process for livestock operations in Minnesota. As the system works now, a farmer can meet all of the state and county requirements to expand their operation, but have the project blocked by a township board.
The Minnesota Association of Townships strongly opposes any change to the zoning powers of local township boards. So does Paul Sobocinski, a hog farmer near Wabasso who works for the Land Stewardship Project. Sobocinski says if township board members don't want a huge dairy or hog operation in their area, they should have the power to stop it.
"When you try to take away those laws, you create havoc in the local community. When people feel they no longer have a voice, they find that upsetting," Sobocinski said.
“When you try to take away those laws, you create havoc in the local community. When people feel they no longer have a voice, they find that upsetting,”Paul Sobocinski
Sobocinski fears someday decisions on livestock expansions could be made at the state level, hundreds of miles from where the farms are located.
Minnesota's Commissioner of Agriculture, Gene Hugoson, doesn't think that's likely to happen.
"But on the other hand, I do think we need to work out some kind of a system where we have people given clear parameters in terms of what they need to do to meet the expectations and then let them proceed without making life difficult for an ag producer," Hugoson said.
Because each township in Minnesota can make their own zoning decisions, the result is a mix of regulations across the state. There are nearly 1,800 townships in Minnesota. Each one with a different set of personalities and priorities. Recently one western Minnesota township board approved a dairy with more than 6,000 cows. While a nearby township defeated a proposal for a farm with several thousand hogs. Those decisions were made in the district of Rep. Aaron Peterson (DFL-Madison). Peterson doesn't see different regulations for different townships as a bad thing. He says that's a hallmark of local control.
"So it can cut both ways, but it was made locally, that's important to remember," Peterson said.
Changing the power local township boards have over agricultural development came up in a bill during last year's legislative session, but the measure was defeated in committee. Although nothing has been proposed yet, some believe the issue may come up again this session.