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Minnesota farm lobbyists flex new political muscle

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Crop sprayer
A crop-spraying plane applies pesticide to a soybean field in Nobles County, Minn. on Monday, Aug. 8, 2011.
Mark Steil | MPR News 2011

Months after rural voters helped Republicans reclaim the majority in the Minnesota House, lawmakers in both parties are looking to weaken environmental laws tied to agriculture.

Legislation helping the agribusiness industry is moving through the House and Senate and environmental groups appear unable to stop it. Gov. Mark Dayton's push to require farmers to leave a 50-foot buffer zone unplanted around rivers is facing stiff resistance from agriculture lobbying groups. 

Dayton hits the road this week to press for his buffer plan, arguing that it will reduce pesticide and fertilizer runoff that is harming the environment. It's not clear, however, what kind of clout he holds now in Minnesota's farm country. 

Republicans picked up crucial rural seats in the Minnesota House in November, helping the GOP take control. Democrats don't appear ready to take on an environmental fight that would pit them against the state's agricultural interests.

Dayton's buffer bill is "unworkable" and can't make it through the state Senate Jobs, Agriculture and Rural Development Committee, said committee chair Sen. Dan Sparks, DFL-Austin. "Obviously, we're all for clean water," he said. "But we need to make sure that agriculture has a seat at the table and is very much a part of the solution." 

Beyond the buffer bill, ag interests are also having a big influence on measures to exempt farmland from some school levies and others that touch on pesticide regulation.

Sen. Dahms
Sen. Gary Dahms
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News

State Sen. Gary Dahms, R-Redwood Falls, is pushing language that removes the definition of a "pollinator lethal insecticide" from state statute. Those include the neonicotinoid class of insecticides that some researchers have linked to the deaths of bees and other pollinators. 

Dahms' move has the backing of the pesticide industry. The lawmaker said he worried the definition of the insecticide was loosely drawn. 

"The terms and the facts just aren't there," Dahms said. "We don't have any limits. We don't describe what a lethal plant is. We don't have any targets and it's very vague. And that is why I'm asking for this to be repealed."

Another bill moving through the Republican controlled House would make it tougher for homeowners to file nuisance lawsuits against livestock producers. Bron Scherer, with the hog farm management company Protein Sources Management, said recently the bill is needed to protect Minnesota's farming community.

"Without animal agriculture in the state, I shudder to think what rural Minnesota would be like," said Scherer, who's also treasurer of the Minnesota Republican Party. "And once it's gone, it does not come back."

Officials representing ag interests downplayed any suggestion they're trying to use newfound political clout to roll over opponents, especially urban environmentalists. 

Kevin Paap, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, said he has members all across Minnesota and his group is not interested in any rural-urban conflict.

"We have one thing in common and that is everybody eats," he said. "Food is agriculture and we want to make sure everyone is at the table."

In his push for 50-foot buffer strips between farming and water, Dayton argues those who live in rural Minnesota have a vital stake in preserving their environment.

The Rock River in southwest Minnesota.
A recent Minnesota Pollution Control Agency study described the Rock River watershed as having 28 "biological impairment," the highest number in the Missouri River basin watersheds studied.
Courtesy MPCA

He pointed to a recent study by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency that found that no lakes and only a few streams in southwestern Minnesota meet the state's quality standards for fishing and swimming. 

"Legislators down in the southwest corner which is the prime area for this study where rivers and streams are being fouled up by all of this water and excess that's pouring into them and the legislators there are going to keep their heads buried in the sand and do nothing about it," Dayton said. "At some point you have to say are you here to protect the public or are you here to protect a few other folks."

But state Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, says the farm lobby push is all about politics. Groups representing agriculture and other rural interests are looking for a payback for showing up at the polls last November, he said. 

Hansen worries the state's environmental laws will be weakened as lawmakers from both parties compete for the support of rural business interests.

"The money is the pollution in the system here in the Minnesota Legislature," Hansen added. "And it's getting worse."