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Ag commissioner stresses the positives among the challenges in Minnesota

MARSHALL — Because of some really “bad things” that happened, Thom Peterson called his first year as Minnesota Department of Agriculture Commissioner “really challenging.”

“It took me from last September, October to really understand what was going on and I would say every day is challenges and opportunities,” Peterson told an audience of farmers and other agriculture advocates during the Linder Farm Network meeting at the Ramada Inn in Marshall on Jan. 7.

Peterson was appointed agriculture commissioner by Gov. Tim Walz in 2019. Petersen is a long-time resident of Royalton Township near Pine City where he lives on a horse farm. Before being appointed Commissioner, Peterson served as the Director of Government Relations for Minnesota Farmers Union since 2002

“There are some really good things that have happened, but there were also some really bad things that happened,” Peterson said of 2019. “It really started this spring when we had 200 barns collapse in southeast Minnesota the first weekend (in March), then 100 more. We had some even down in this area from the heavy snow.”

Peterson then recalled the Del Monte plant closing in Sleepy Eye and closings of ethanol plants. Then he mentioned that Minnesota experienced its wettest year on record.

“That really complicated everything for us in the state of Minnesota,” Peterson said. “We want to make sure in these tough years, or tough times, and challenges, you know we have increased counseling. If you know people — we’ve had farmers take their lives this year. We’ve had farmers really struggle and it’s hard to ask for help, but we want you to know that we have counselors that are free. We have farm advocates that are trained to help farmers that are having a hard time.”

The department of Agriculture web site offers that information. Go to mda.state.mn.us/abourt/mnfarmerstress

It also offers a Minnesota Farm and Rural helpline: 833-600-2670.

“At the Department of Agriculture we have a great thing which sometimes we don’t talk enough about. We have what’s called Rural Finance Authority that partners with your local bank to make low-interest rates. So we have a great suite of loan programs that we want you to know about,” Peterson said.

“We have a livestock expansion loan, ag improvement loan — our most popular loan is the beginning farmer loan that we do a lot of those. Then of course we have disaster recovery loans. Those farm (barn) collapses, you have a year to work with that.”

Another popular program, according to Peterson, is the beginning farmer tax credit.

“So if you are a beginning farmer — 10 years or less or leasing equipment or land — you can get a 5 percent credit for sale or 10 percent credit for leasing for equipment or land.”

Peterson said the tax credit program sunsets in 2023, but he feels the Legislature will approve it again.

“We have to prove to the Legislature that this is a good program. We want to keep it going,” he said.

Also according to Peterson, the department offers a variety of grants to help add value to a farm by adding a different kind of product or crop.

“We did put a lot of money in the Legislature in trying to help our dairy farms. We have about 2,500 in the state. As we all know, it’s been really tough the last years for dairy,” he said. “We really want to keep our dairy farmers in Minnesota. The Legislature felt like this is the time right now to take shot at trying to help those dairy farms. So we are glad to see a lot of dairy farmers have signed up for that program.”

Peterson said his department has been getting a lot of questions about industrial hemp which he reminded everybody in the room it’s now fully legalized in Minnesota. He said the department is currently taking applications for a 2020 pilot program. He said Minnesota had six licensed growers in 2016, but 343 in 2019. And the number of acres dedicated to help increased from 38 acres in 2016 to 8,000 in 2019.

Peterson said the department is also concerned about the weed palmer amaranth that has been found in 60 of Iowa’s 99 counties. The weed is considered a competitive and aggressive pigweed species that poses a major threat to crop land.

“This year we found it in two counties — Houston and Lincoln. We have been able to limit it. The state of Minnesota does put grant money out to work with you and county weed inspectors,” he said.

“There are a lot of interesting things happening across our state,” Peterson said. “Once a week the Department of Agriculture hosts other countries. It could be Cubans buying potatoes, Nigerians, Malaysians, Great Britain, United Kingdom, a lot of Canada. It’s exciting to see they want to buy.”

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