AUSTIN, Minn. — Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz stopped in Austin on Monday afternoon, Oct. 19. to talk about how the state is using CARES Act funding to help create better opportunities for Minnesota farmers.

"This proposal we're sending over to the Legislature, hopefully we'll be able to get this money out," Walz said, referring to a $7.7 million CARES Act spending plan. "There's some direct help, especially for pork and turkey. Then there's the processing piece of it."

The plan would spend $7.7 million of the state's Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funding — the state received $2.2 billion total, with $1.87 billion to be spent by the state, and the rest going to local government and education — with $1 million to expand and open meat-processing facilities, $500,000 for local food systems, $250,000 for farm business management scholarships, $5,750,000 for direct payments to turkey and pork producers to compensate for animals lost due to COVID-19, and $200,000 to reimburse the Minnesota Department of Agriculture for grants that provided Minnesota-grown food in school summer meal programs.

Walz also visited farms in Northfield and Albert Lea on his tour of southern Minnesota, accompanied by Minnesota Department of Agriculture Commissioner Thom Peterson.

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In Austin, he visited Cotter Farm, a family farm of roughly 1,000 acres where Tom Cotter raises everything from corn and soybeans to sweet corn and peas, plus hemp and grass-fed beef.

Cotter said one of the biggest effects he's felt since the start of COVID-19 is the scarce space at local locker plants. Cotter sells some of his beef wholesale through larger corporations, but also sells direct to consumers locally. Because of the shutdown of larger meat-processing plants, the smaller local lockers are booked, he said, meaning he can't get his beef processed for direct sales.

"The butcher shop went from a two-month wait to 16 months," Cotter said. "I missed out on a lot of good selling I could have done. I still sold beef at a really good price, but I only had three spots."

Peterson said the $7.7 million would help animal agriculture by helping to fund expansion of the capacity at local lockers, meaning more space for processing meat locally and selling it direct to consumers. Another aspect of the plan is to help those hog and turkey farmers who had to either destroy mature animals or sell them at a fraction of the normal cost. Minnesota is the top turkey-producing state in the country, and is No. 2 in hog production, he said.

Talking about hogs, Peterson said, "We depopulated over 300,000, but we gave away over 100,000, and 'gave away' means we either gave them or sold them for less than $20."

Those farmers were hit especially hard in Minnesota, he said, and needed relief in the form of CARES funding.

Walz said the $1 million for local processing plants will help bring more animals to market as larger processors like Hormel and Smithfield work to return to their pre-COVID-19 capacity.

Austin farmer Tom Cotter talks with local media during a Governor Walz visit to Cotter’s Farm west of Austin Monday, October 19, 2020. With Walz and Cotter are Minnesota agriculture commissioner Thom Petersen, and Rep. Jeanne Poppe. (Ken Klotzbach@postbulletin.com)
Austin farmer Tom Cotter talks with local media during a Governor Walz visit to Cotter’s Farm west of Austin Monday, October 19, 2020. With Walz and Cotter are Minnesota agriculture commissioner Thom Petersen, and Rep. Jeanne Poppe. (Ken Klotzbach@postbulletin.com)

"As winter comes, food security — or insecurity — is going to be a big issue," the governor said. "Producers have always been willing to be there for their neighbors, and so there's some help."

Cotter employs 14 individuals, many through his Superior Cannabis stores in Austin and Duluth. Those stores were briefly shut down when the pandemic began. He said he hoped the governor would help open up the medical marijuana marketplace for more producers in Minnesota.

Walz said the focus of the CARES Act funding is to help local food systems provide for local consumers.

"What we saw was the fragileness of (the large-scale) food system," Walz said. "I'll tell you, the thing that kept us up in March and April was what happens if the grocery stores run out of food. How do we manage that?"

Finally, Walz said he hoped Congress would extend the CARES Act spending deadline to help counties spend their CARES Act funding.

"About 93-95% of ours is obligated," Walz said, with the $7.7 million announced Monday adding to the total. But, he said, counties and cities are still struggling to find the right ways to spend their money, and the deadline means some things that make sense won't be an option. For example, the state or counties could assign CARES Act funding to improve broadband access, but the fiber-optic cables would need to be in the ground by the Dec. 31 deadline.

Walz said he's not alone in this request. In fact, all 50 governors have asked Congress to extend the deadline.

"Just extend the time," Walz said. "What would it hurt to give them 60 more days? This is more directly getting funds right to the people."