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Committee OKs agriculture bill funding nitrate treatment, allowing fertilizer research council to sunset

When session ended last year, House Agriculture Finance and Policy Committee Chair Rep. Samantha Vang (DFL-Brooklyn Center) had a goal: keep whole the Agricultural Growth, Research and Innovation program, which can develop both farmers and farm products.

In the interim, the Environmental Protection Agency directed the state to address nitrate contamination often connected to fertilizer use.

Managing both with a small supplemental budget target this year posed a challenge. However, Rep. Kristi Pursell (DFL-Northfield) appreciates the “out-of-the-box” thinking that went into HF3763, the committee’s supplemental budget bill.

Members approved the bill, as amended, on a split-voice vote Thursday and referred it to the House Ways and Means Committee.

It calls for almost $4.55 million in General Fund appropriations, with $3.1 million to treat nitrate contamination. Per an amendment adopted during the meeting, the money would be used for “home water treatment, including reverse osmosis, for private drinking-water wells with nitrate in excess of the maximum contaminant level,” in eight counties in southeastern Minnesota.

Other money would go to soil health equipment grants, biofuel equipment grants, and farm-to-school nutrition programs.

“It’s a small supplemental budget, but it will be impactful,” Vang said.

[MORE: View the spreadsheet]

Before the vote, Vang successfully amended the bill to remove two controversial items. As a result, interest will continue to build up the grain indemnity fund that was created last year, and school boards can allow waterfowl hatching programs.

Republicans, however, took issue with a remaining provision that would end funding for the Agricultural Fertilizer Research and Education Council. A 40-cent per ton fee on agricultural fertilizer raising about $1.3 million per year used to fund the council would instead go to a private well drinking water assistance program, beginning in the next biennium.

Rep. Paul Anderson (R-Starbuck) called the council a farmer-funded program that provides resources and education that can help reduce fertilizer use, adding it seems counterproductive to end the program when it could benefit water quality.

Rep. Rick Hansen (DFL-South St. Paul) said AFREC has always been about improving production, not water quality.

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