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Agriculture gets ready for unallotment process

State funding for agriculture programs took a jolt from the 2009 Legislature, and ag officials hope pending unallotment by Gov. Tim Pawlenty doesn't go much deeper.

The $75 million given to the state Department of Agriculture amounts to more than an 8 percent cut, with funding shifted to veterans programs. Agriculture and veterans affairs are handled by the same committees in the Legislature.

"We'll make it work," Minnesota Agriculture Assistant Commissioner Robin Kinney said Saturday in an interview while she attended the Beltrami County Farm Bureau Breakfast on the Farm near Shevlin.

"It's a tough time we're in, and I guess those of us in agriculture are somewhat used to that," she said. "We're in unprecedented times right now, with the budget deficit and I believe all of us know in state government that we to tighten down, we need to take a look at where we're duplicating things possibly and what programs are our priority."

The department has had some shifts in funding and program cuts, Kinney said, "We came out all right -- we had a little more than an 8 percent cut. No cut today is easy to take, but we'll make it work."

Pawlenty by month's end is expected to lay out his budget cuts through the unallotment process to fill a $2.7 billion budget gap between expected revenues in the next biennium and the budget spending he signed into law.

Kinney said the department will view more cuts as an opportunity to get innovative and creative. "Yes, we're concerned with any future reductions, but we also have to have a balanced state budget, and we need to get the job done."

Kevin Paap, Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation president who also was at Breakfast on the Farm, said that "we're always concerned with unallotment."

Paap said he visited last week with officials in state Ag Commissioner Gene Hugoson's office about unallotment possibilities. "There's going to be concerns with that," he said, "but yet we want to make sure we maintain the integrity of department."

Those include the agency's inspection services, regulation services, "that they remain whole," Paap said. "Hopefully we can make that work."

The mission of the state Ag Department "is to protect the integrity of our food, to make sure that we're securing the environment and to help with the economics," Kinney, the assistant commissioner, said. "As long as those priorities and missions are served, the department and our staff will continue its role."

Until the government announces his decision, Kinney said that "as agencies, we're preparing, we're taking a look -- we're always taking a look -- at what we can do better and best we can invest the taxpayers' monies."

Kinney said the department's victory from the 2009 session was continuation of the livestock investment grant program. The program "was funded again and it was a big initiative of the governor and the Legislature really supported it.

"We found that the value and the interest in that program was far outside what money we have available," she added. "They've set the markers there for a program that we can build some funds and continue to provide some rural economic stimulus through interesting grants and innovative ideas, and it will help our livestock producers down the road."

Tweaks are being made to the application, she said, and new language was added to allow somebody applying for a 10 percent reimbursement to do so if they had a natural disaster or an unintended consequence, she said.

The new version is to start July 1, but Kinney said efforts will wait until the unallotment picture becomes clearer. As it is, the program is funded for two years.

"We knew it wasn't going to be a lot of fun," Paap said of the 2009 session, with much of it wrapped in finding solutions to a $6.4 billion state budget deficit. "Everybody took hits."

The Minnesota Farm Bureau's chief concern with the state budget was to prevent the Department of Agriculture "from losing some of the resources they need to do the important things they do, whether it's food safety, environmental safety -- air quality, water quality, to make sure they can still do those things."

Key is to maintain the agency's resources "to make sure our food is safe and stays safe," Paap said.

"This year we had some concerns with Green Acres in getting that done; bovine TB is still a priority with us in Farm Bureau," he added. "We need to do anything and everything we can to eradicate that in both the cattle and deer herds."

Legislators corrected a mistake from the 2008 session in tax laws in the Green Acres Program to treat non-productive ag land differently than nearby developable land. It also created a special conservation reserve category for ag land involving wetlands that can't be farmed or developed.

It was very clear early Farm Bureau members that Green Acres was a big issue across the state, Paap said. "It became our No. 1 priority after the budget. We needed to get an answer to that right away,."

Not only do issues get harder to resolve as the session nears its final days, he said, but also a decision was needed soon as farmers and ranchers need to make decisions on what to do with some of those lands.

"We needed answers before this spring so they can make those cropping decisions," he said.

"We need to add value to our commodities, and livestock is a way to do that," Paap also said. "We watched a lot of the livestock bills very closely."