By Tim Krohn, Mankato Free Press
Finding support for a tax credit for farmland buffer strips, managing chronic wasting disease in deer, controlling Palmer amaranth — called the No. 1 weed problem in the country — improving public boat landings and finding a middle ground on the battle over mowing road ditches are just a few of the issues facing Minnesota's new top agriculture official and new Department of Natural Resources leader.
Ag Commissioner Thom Peterson and DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen met with residents at the Nicollet American Legion Saturday, hosted by Sen. Nick Frentz.
Strommen, who has been with the DNR for a few years, said Gov. Tim Walz's budget proposal for the agency focuses on three areas: connecting people to the outdoors, focusing on public engagement and developing more partnerships between the DNR and other agencies, conservation groups and local governments.
She said Walz's proposal for $4.6 million from the general fund to combat CWD would be the first time the agency got money for the effort outside of deer hunting license revenue.
"We have a very narrow window to affect this disease." She said the state must act aggressively on controlling the deadly and highly contagious disease or have the problem grow out of control as it has in Wisconsin. Beyond protecting the herd and helping hunters, Strommen said controlling CWD is an economic issue for "all the communities that turn orange in the fall."
She said Walz's budget would also increase funding for trail maintenance. "Everyone likes to fund new things," she said, but all the added trails over the years have increased maintenance needs, which haven't seen increased funding.
And the governor is calling for a hike in boat registration fees, which hasn't gone up since 2006, and for fees that fight aquatic invasive species, which has been the same since the 1990s.
Peterson said helping farmers who have seen years of low crop prices is a top priority. "How can we improve the life of farmers while protecting our environment?"
He said his agency's proposed budget puts more focus on expanding trade opportunities for agriculture, protecting the food supply, controlling diseases in livestock and working with the Legislature to provide a property tax credit for farmers who were required to add vegetative buffers strips along ditches and waterways under a law passed during the Mark Dayton administration.
Walz has supported providing a $50 per acre tax credit for land that was put into buffers. Frentz said he and others are pushing for a more generous effort that would cost taxpayers more. It would have counties eliminate property taxes on buffer lands and have the state then reimburse counties 100 percent to make up for that lost tax revenue.
Peterson said his department is committed to battling Palmer amaranth, which has been found in five counties. It is a large type of pigweed that has devastated crops in the south and has spread to half of the counties in Iowa.
He said Minnesota has been able to eradicate the weed so far and said finding and removing it is vital to protect crops.
Peterson also said finding new trade partners for farm products is needed after tariffs have significantly cut trade with China.
Peterson was previously director of government relations for the Minnesota Farmers Union since 2002. While he no longer actively farms he has a horse farm in Pine County.
Strommen most recently was assistant DNR commissioner. Before joining the DNR in 2015, she was assistant director of the Board of Water and Soil and Resources. She previously worked as policy director for the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness.