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Holding the line: In 2023, the best advocacy offense was a good defense

Holding the line: In 2023, the best advocacy offense was a good defense

Few, if any, Minnesota farm groups would say they checked off all their policy priorities during the 2023 legislative session. But the Minnesota Association of Wheat Growers (MAWGG) managed expectations in a contentious legislative environment, found inroads where they could with the Democratic majority and emerged with numerous policy wins to bring home to its membership base.  

“Overall, we came out in pretty decent shape,” MAWG President Mike Gunderson said.  

While the board worked with ag groups and legislative leaders to promote policy, it also helped prevent harmful legislation from reaching Gov. Tim Walz’s desk.   

“It was a very good year of defense,” MAWG CEO Charlie Vogel said. “That’s half the battle.”   

Bruce Kleven, who lobbies on behalf of MAWG, said Sen. Aric Putnam, chair of the Senate Ag Committee, emerged as a key supporter of Minnesota agriculture. Putnam, a college communications professor, made clear at the session’s start that he arrived as ag chair with little farming background. Instead, he relied on farmer feedback to help shape the committee’s policy proposals. 

“He has turned out to be pretty levelheaded regarding ag policy and interested in what we have to say,” Kleven said. “Sen. Putnam is naturally inquisitive and genuinely wanted to work with the ag groups.”  

Putnam was instrumental in working with MAWG and other farm groups on treated seed regulations. A House proposal would’ve created a regulatory program overseen by the commissioner of Agriculture with producers having to prove a need to use the treated seed, but Putnam helped remove the proposal in conference committee.  

“He took that seriously and said, ‘We’re not doing that,” Kleven said. 

The second component of the treated seed discussion involved proper disposal of seeds expired beyond their germination date. MAWG asserts that the legislature should decide the Pollution Control Agency’s authority, not the agency.   

“We’re monitoring this very carefully over the interim,” Kleven said, “and we’ll put in comments if necessary.”  

MAWG supported the Beginning Farmer Tax Credit, which increases the credit amount for eligible sales of agricultural assets (farmland, machinery, etc.) to 12% for sales to socially disadvantaged farmers and 8% for sales to other beginning farmers. In addition, the bill boosts the maximum credit amount to $50,000 for eligible sales and expands eligibility to include the sale of assets between family members. 

The organization also applauded the passage of the agricultural homestead tax credit, which increased from $1.14 million to $3.5 million due to spiked in land value over the past decade.  

“That tax credit is really going to make a difference for farm families,” Gunderson said.  

Wins and setbacks 

Thanks to MAWG’s leadership,, the Northern Crops Institute (NCI) – in legislation carried by Sen. Robert Kupec – received its first funding bump in several years, from $94,000 over the biennium to $120,000.  

“NCI is very near and dear to our hearts, and we were pleased to see the legislature continues supporting this program,” Gunderson said.  

The legislature also approved a funding increase for the Department of Agriculture’s international trade program. Minnesota ranks fourth nationwide in agriculture exports, with Minnesota wheat farmers generating over $200 million in shipments each year.  

“Exports are so critical to our industry, and we all felt MDA needed more resources to compete with other state’s international marketing budgets,” Gunderson said. 

One key piece of legislation that MAWG and business leaders couldn’t stop was Paid Family Leave, which grants workers as much as 12 weeks to care for a newborn, along with 12 weeks off in the event of their own illness. The program begins in 2026 and will be funded through a .7% payroll tax on employers.  

“That’s a big one that gives a lot of groups heartburn,” Kleven said. “It’s going to hit everyone.”  

Kleven consternation was eased by the calm leadership of Gunderson, who was first elected MAWG president in 2021.  

“Mike’s been a good president,” Kleven said. “He’s always been very interested in legislation.” 

Minnesota Department of Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen remained a key champion, both publicly and behind the scenes, throughout the session.  

“He knows what the ag groups do and don’t like,” Kleven said. “The commissioner is a steady hand on the wheel; he’s part of the negotiations in the final bill. We know he does a lot behind the scenes.” 

The 2024 legislative session begins Feb. 12. In the meantime, engagement with legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle will be crucial.  

“The rural-urban divide is real, and we have a lot of engagement opportunities with our urban brethren,” Vogel said.