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Walz announces $7.7M in support of farmers affected by COVID-19

Gov. Tim Walz, along with Minnesota Commissioner of Agriculture Thom Petersen, made three stops in southeast Minnesota Monday to talk about a new support package going to help local producers and farmers who were hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The plan is worth $7.7 million.

When COVID hit … for many of us, as we were seeing the unknowns that were involved in it, one of the biggest concerns early on, especially after the Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls closed down, there was a real concern of a shortage of food,” Walz said from the field of local farmer Tom Cotter. “What would happen if we were locked down and the food supply was broken? It was unimaginable in this county, where food security and the affordability of food was something that had been just taken for granted.”

In particular, hog and turkey farmers took the brunt of the fall out as producers were forced to either depopulate or give away their livestock because there was no place to process the animals.

While plants such as Smithfield and the JBS plant in Worthington were perhaps the most visible part of this, some of it had to do with fewer local meat lockers.

“It used to be that every small town had a meat locker and you would be able to custom process,” Walz said. “That still happens, but it’s pretty rare, so we had a whole bunch of hogs, a whole bunch of animals people had and nowhere to process them.”

Part of the plan calls for $1 million put toward companies or individuals looking to expand or open a meat processing facility. It’s hoped that this will ease the back-up of animals caused by COVID-19 impacts on the food chain.

For local producers like Cotter, the arrival of this money, stemming from CARES Act funding, is very welcome.

“I have missed opportunities where I could have sold to people; there just was not the market, not a facility to handle it,” he said, standing next to Walz and Petersen. “To have these new butcher shops hopefully come about, I’m going to get my food to people’s freezers.”

Even though COVID-19 played a major hand in developing the plan, it’s not entirely a new problem.

“Folks like Tom (Cotter) have been talking about local processing for decades,” Walz said. “It’s not something that just comes around with COVID. COVID just provided that need.”

While the main purpose of the visit was the relief package, Walz and Petersen also got to see first hand the sustainability work Cotter and his family have put into their land through conservation land management practices.

Cotter was able to showcase that directly by standing in the field Monday; a field that once held a crop, but now has Cotter’s cattle grazing on the land.

“This is a cash crop field for a farmer. I was able to get income off of this,” Cotter explained. “Was it as good as corn or soybeans? Probably not. When you turn it around to the benefits of livestock and what it’s doing to my soil, I actually feel I’m ahead because of what I can do. I don’t’ have spread manure, I don’t have to chop corn to make silage for my cattle. I’m letting the cows out to where they want to be. Using the whole system to every aspect I can.”

To do that, however, farmers like Cotter need help from the government to make that a reality.

“Farming has not been easy,” Cotter admitted. “I’ve been looking at low soybean prices all year except right now, after I got rid of all of my soybeans. It was nice to be able to have some income off of that. Not that I want a hand out. Farmers, we do not want handouts. We just want a fair price and if we can’t get fair prices, we’ll take hand.”

Walz said he recognizes the issues farmers face in trying to move to more sustainable forms of agriculture.

“We need to make sure it’s not a financial disadvantage to go in the direction of sustainability,” he said. “It needs to be a positive.”

A breakdown of the $7.7 million package to support farmers

  • $5,750,000 for direct payments to turkey and pork producers to compensate for market disruptions and associated costs due to COVID-19.
  • $1 million for cost share aid to companies or individuals looking to expand or pen a meat processing facility. A further investment in meat processing capabilities will help alleviate the back up of animals caused by supply-chain impacts of COVID-19.
  • $500,000 for local food systems, many of which have shifted their businesses to stay afloat, while others faced losses as wholesale markets closed.
  • $250,000 for Farm Business Management Scholarships. These scholarships, offered by the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, help farmers manage their finances and learn how to navigate the complicated financial systems of farming, which have been impacted significantly by COVID-19.
  • $200,000 for farmer and food security support to reimburse the Minnesota Department of Agriculture for grants that provided Minnesota-grown foods in school summer meal programs. This funding would also support a new cost-share program to help on-farm direct marketers and farmers markets purchase equipment and supplies necessary for staff and customer health.