Farmers say drought aid urgently needed

a field of brown grass
A northern Minnesota cattle pasture has turned brown in the summer heat and drought. Minnesota farmers are urging Gov. Tim Walz to move quickly on drought aid, as conditions worsen for farmers across the state.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News file

Minnesota farmers hurt by deepening drought conditions told Gov. Tim Walz Friday they need help quickly.

Walz held a virtual listening session with farmers and ranchers around the state and heard about severe shortages of feed for cattle, and crops that are drying up.

While crop farmers can recoup some losses through the federal crop insurance program, livestock producers don’t have that option and many are struggling to find hay for cattle.

Rachel Gray raises livestock near Blackduck and told the governor a federal livestock forage disaster program can help pay for feed, but it is confusing, unclear and slow.

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“And so for us to budget, we need to speak for hay right now, as it comes available, and you have no idea how much money is out there to help. That's very frustrating,” she said.

Social media makes it easy for farmers to find available hay supplies in other states, but the speed of online sales is challenging.

a man stands in a a wheat field
In some areas of Minnesota, drought-stunted wheat crops yielded one-third of the normal harvest.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News file

“Here today, gone tomorrow is a thing of the past, here this minute gone next minute, is really where we're at,” said Glenwood dairy farmer Suzanne Vold.

“Hay vendors from across the country are going to demand the payment now and with finances the way they are, especially the dairy market where prices are not great, and feed is so very expensive for us, that's a big challenge,” she said.

Many beef operations are selling cattle they can’t afford to feed. Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen said the state lost 21 dairy farms last month.

Governor Walz told the farmers and ranchers that he wants to include a drought aid package in the special legislative session next month.

"I want to stress that I hear loud and clear, there is a fierce sense of urgency to get something done now, and the idea of telling you, you'll get paid in a couple years, it's just not going to work in this environment, this is tough business,” said Walz, who offered few specifics about what such an aid package might include.

cows stand near a tank of water
Cattle at a stock watering tank in northern Minnesota.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News file

But he said drought disaster aid should be an issue the entire legislature can agree on.

The governor also said he’s very concerned about the drought impact on local economies across the state as farmers cut back on spending.

Many of the existing aid programs are targeted to large traditional crop and livestock farms.

“We know how to get money to those operations, those commodities, that always get the money,” said Kathy Zeman, executive director of the Minnesota Farmers Market Association.

“We don't have really good channel setup for all of our specialty crop farmers or small scale farmers. So we're going to really need to think outside the box if we're going to help those folks too,” she said. “And these are really underserved people, so I don't want to lose that, otherwise we're going to continue to have this systemic inequity.”

The state just received $17.5 million in federal hazard mitigation grant funds which are targeted at reducing the impact of climate change. Walz said he expects to direct some of that money to farmers and ranchers dealing with the current drought.