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Minnesota Soybean Business

Hitting the ‘sweet spot’: MN Senate ag leaders seized wins for farmers in 2019

September-October 2019

In the face of a divided government, the pieces came together for farming legislation during the 2019 legislative session. Two Republican senators and committee chairs can take their fair share of the credit for passing the bipartisan farming legislation alongside a Democratic House and Gov. Tim Walz.

“It was a very good product, both in the initial and final bill,” says Sen. Torrey Westrom (R-Elbow Lake), chair of the House Agriculture, Rural Development and Housing Finance Committee. “I thought it really hit the sweet spot.”

In the senate, Westrom worked alongside Sen. Bill Weber (R-Luverne), chair of the House Agriculture, Rural Development and Housing Policy Committee, to craft an omnibus bill that moves Minnesota agriculture forward. Producers will see increased funding for rural broadband, mental health, battling noxious weeds, tax cuts and full funding for AGREET.

“Overall things went fairly well,” Weber says. “As we look toward the future, we get caught up in issues like trade, but we need to continue advancing as far as new products and new ways to utilize our product.”

As part of the ag omnibus bill, the Soy Innovation Campus, which the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association (MSGA) staunchly advocated for, received $5 million in funding. Both Weber and Westrom, who represent ag-centric districts in the southern and northern sections of Minnesota, say pushing for funding for the SI Campus became a key component to the final bill.

“We need to make investments for tomorrow,” Weber said. “We’ve always been extremely successful in agriculture in terms of upping our production, but not so much with new product development. We need to do what’s good for soybeans and agriculture in general.”

Westrom, who represents eight counties in northwest Minnesota, says the SI Campus will bring much-needed relief to growers in his region. Once operating, the SI Campus could increase the price of soybeans in the 11-county region in northwest Minnesota by 20 cents per bushel.

“I was proud to be a part of that opportunity,” says Westrom, who also credited his Senate GOP colleague, Mark Johnson. “We had to get creative, but at the end of the day we got it done for Minnesota farmers.”

The most exciting function of the crush and biodiesel facility, Westrom says, is the possibility of increasing the profitability of growers in northwest Minnesota.

“If you can add value within your region, it’s a way of keeping dollars in your communities,” Westrom says. “That’s rural development at its finest.”

Lending a helping hand

Westrom has been well aware of the rural mental health crisis among Minnesota farmers. But hearing the story of former MSGA President Theresia Gillie, who lost her husband Keith to suicide in 2017, brought the issue even further into clarity for Westrom when Gillie was the keynote speaker at the 2019 Pope County Corn and Soybean Growers annual meeting.

“She was so eloquent – I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house,” Westrom says. “I really appreciated her message.”

Until this session, Ted Matthews was the lone professional funded to provide rural mental health services in Minnesota. Included in the ag omnibus bill was funding that doubles resources for rural mental health in the state.

“Times are tough in agriculture and we need to have a system that can be there through thick and thin,” Westrom says. “It’s so important for neighbors to help neighbors and to be a friend and also refer people to this service before it’s too late.”

Fitting the Bill

Luverne is the only place Weber has called home. He was raised on a farm in far southwest Minnesta near the Iowa and South Dakota borders. His nephew now grows corn and soybeans on the fifth generation, 135-year old farm. He also owns Jensen Management Service, which specializes in agriculture real estate and appraisals.

“Senator Weber is truly a farmer’s friend and he’s still involved in agriculture,” says MSGA Director and former President Bob Worth, who’s known Weber for more than 20 years. “He’s a guy that’s willing to work to get things done.”

Voters elected Weber to the Minnesota senate in 2012, replacing Doug Mathus. He completed his seventh session on the Senate Ag Committee.

“There are fewer and fewer legislators in St. Paul that have an ag background, or know the issues that ag faces,” Weber said. “I’ve always thought that, being from my district, that I should be on the ag committee.”

Weber is highly regarded by growers in his area. He’s attended county corn and soybean growers meetings in his district, and in 2016 was awarded a commemorative pen by Worth on behalf of the Lincoln County Corn and Soybean Growers.

“We have a very strong soybean growers history, and (MSGA) has been represented quite strongly in my district,” Weber says.

Going West(rom)

“I grew up on a dairy farm in Elbow Lake in the middle of ag country,” says Westrom, an attorney and owner of TSI Real Estate. He has a lengthy background in Minnesota politics, serving with the House of Representatives from 1997 to 2003 before becoming a state senator in 2013. He’s sat on both House and Senate ag committees for his entire 23-year tenure as a legislator, and in 2014 ran against Rep. Collin Peterson for Minnesota’s Seventh Congressional District.

“I’ve seen a lot of changes in agriculture,” Westrom says. “Twenty years ago, people were afraid to invest in things like GPS and auto steer. Now, you almost can’t use equipment without it.”

Westrom says he appreciates the feedback and suggestions he receives from his constituents; their words carry weight.

“That’s number one, the relationship that each farmer develops with their legislator,” he says. “I cherish them – they bring you real ideas to make it happen.”

He recalls a conversation with Vernon Pooch, a former director with both MSGA and the Minnesota Soybean Research & Promotion Council, during the early days of biodiesel. Pooch was advocating for Westrom to back a law mandating the use of 2 percent biodiesel during the summer months. In 2000, then-Rep. Westrom introduced the first B2 legislation in the Minnesota House.

“I didn’t know him before biodiesel, and Vern came up and talked to me about why it’d be good to support biodiesel,” Westrom says. “He and I have had many conversations since. He’s got great insights and is a great person to get feedback from.”

Pooch says his district has been lucky to have a senator who stands up for producers.

“Torrey has been a tremendous representative for agriculture,” Pooch says. “He’s been a leader on so many issues, and continues to be a voice for farmers.”

Allies for ag

Weber says despite their differing governing styles, he and Westrom’s legislative agendas remain aligned.

“We have a very good working relationship,” he says. “At the end of the day, we’re on the same side of the issues. Sen. Westrom definitely fights for farmers throughout Minnesota.”

Westrom says their similar backgrounds and district landscape allow them to see agriculture through the same prism. In 2019, everything came into sharp focus for agriculture in St. Paul.

“We certainly work well together,” he says. “Bill is an A1 voice for rural Minnesota and agriculture. We’re both about rolling up our sleeves and getting to work.

 

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