ECKLES TOWNSHIP -- Testing deer for bovine tuberculosis could prove crucial to putting Minnesota back to TB-Free status, says state Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook.
"I am hopeful that we will have eliminated bovine TB from Minnesota, but time is going to tell that," Skoe said Thursday night as keynote speaker to the Beltrami County Farm Bureau's annual meeting.
"In my opinion, that's this fall when testing starts during the deer-hunting season," he said. "Let's hope that we have no positive deer."
Skoe, chief author of bovine TB legislation this past year, was honored with the Beltrami County Farm Bureau's 2008 Friend of Agriculture Award for those efforts. About 40 people enjoyed a farm dinner at the Eckles Community Center prior to the meeting.
Under Skoe's legislation, a bovine TB management area was established around where the disease has been found in cattle, in southern Roseau County and northwest Beltrami County, around Skime.
Enough cases have been discovered to cause the U.S. Department of Agriculture to rank Minnesota third in a five-category scale, meaning beef and dairy operations face tougher restrictions to sell and move cattle from their farm.
Skoe's legislation created a voluntary herd buyout program for beef producers in the bovine TB management area, at $500 per animal and $75 annually until the area is declared TB-Free, the least restrictive USDA category.
Efforts were also mandated to fence in cattle, preventing deer and free-ranging deer from mingling at feed stations.
"The DNR is planning on continuing its deer elimination program this winter, very similar to what it did last year," Skoe said. Last winter, state Department of Natural Resources conservation officers and USDA sharpshooters tried culling the deer herd, even using helicopters to spot and shoot deer.
"But it's the testing during the deer hunt that's going to tell the story," Skoe said.
He also hopes a decision as soon as next week from USDA to allow a split-state status for Minnesota, meaning all but the bovine TB management area would be declared TB-Free.
"USDA has scheduled a decision for this around Oct. 1, and they say they're on track for Minnesota getting its split-state status. That would be a very good thing to get it done that quick."
That's why, he said, it was imperative to take immediate steps such as culling the deer herd last winter and in the 2008 legislation. He also credited state Reps. Brita Sailer, DFL-Park Rapids, and Dave Olin, DFL-Thief River Falls, for their efforts and U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, DFL-7th District, in dealing with the USDA.
There is uncertainty, however, over whether neighboring states North Dakota and Wisconsin will accept the pending USDS reclassifying of most of Minnesota as TB-Free, he said. "I think Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota will."
Skoe also told the Farm Bureau members of another piece of legislation from the 2008 session, that of changes to the state's 40-year-old "Green Acres" tax law that allows agricultural land to be valued lower for property tax purposes than like land being used for development.
"The purpose of that law was to equalize taxes on ag land because of land value increases that were due to pressures that were not agricultural in nature," said Skoe, chairman of the Senate Property Taxes Division.
It's especially helpful in the suburban area where former ag land is being turned into housing developments, and in northern Minnesota where ag land is being purchased as recreational land, he said.
"People are building houses, dragging up the land value of ag land, but not related to agriculture," Skoe said.
"It's a state law and should have been implemented uniformally across the state but was not," he added.
There was more than $10 billion in property tax dollars being sheltered in the current Green Acres program, he said, meaning neighbors to those properties had to pick up the taxes. And 43 percent of that total involve non-productive ag land.
"Ag land, to me, is something that produces something," said Skoe, who grows potatoes and wild rice about 8 miles north of Clearbrook. Changes to Green Acres tightens up the law, ensures its implementation statewide, and makes sure it applies to producing ag land.
"If your farm is close to Bemidji or if you're in an area with a lot of recreational land is being bought for hunting, your land values are higher than they would be if it was just ag sales," he said.
The matter has become controversial, however, in areas of the state where non-productive ag land was allowed to be enrolled in the Green Acres program, Skoe said.
Skoe said he was honored to receive the group's 2008 Friend of Agriculture Award, the second given by the Beltrami County Farm Bureau, which split off from another chapter in 2006. The group's initial award last year went to Brad Swenson, the Bemidji Pioneer's Opinion page and political editor.
"Of 201 state legislators at the Capitol, there's actually only about three who farm," said James Dodds, Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation's North District Area program director. "You're very lucky to have a local legislator who is involved in agriculture as Sen. Skoe has."
Skoe has served as Clearbrook-Gonvick School Board member, Clearwater County commissioner and House 2B state representative before his election to the state Senate. He started logging near Kelliher, but then moved to the family farm near Clearbrook.
He has also been twice honored with Minnesota Farm Bureau Friend of Agriculture awards.
"You really know how hard he works as a farmer, but he's worked hard in St. Paul on bovine TB legislation," said Sailer, who also spoke to the local Farm Bureau. "I am proud of the Legislature for quickly moving ahead on bovine TB. I worried if metro legislators really understood what we needed, but none of them quibbled -- they just did it."
Former state Rep. Doug Lindgren, R-Bagley, who is opposing Sailer in this fall's election, also praised Skoe.
"Rod, it's a great honor," Lindgren said to Skoe. "Rod deserves it, and he's a good man."