MANKATO — State lawmakers are poised to do something about farm safety this legislative session — just not as much as they had hoped.
The House and Senate have reached a compromise to expand and fund a farm safety program that would give farmers grants for grain storage-related safety equipment. Under a supplemental agriculture budget bill, the program would receive $50,000 annually for the next two years.
That’s one-fifth of the $250,000-per-year area lawmakers, state officials and Gov. Tim Walz initially wanted. Still, it’s likely the best-case scenario for a Legislature facing an impending budget deficit due to COVID-19, said Rep. Jeff Brand, DFL-St. Peter.
“Given where we’re at, given the status of the budget forecast, I think everybody will understand that we were able to do something,” he said.
Brand, the vice chair of the House agriculture committee, sponsored the farm safety program bill in the House while Sen. Nick Frentz, DFL-North Mankato, authored the bill in the Senate. Brand and Sen. Rich Draheim, R-Madison Lake, also partnered on a bill that would direct funding toward computer applications for farmers to remotely shut off grain bins.
“I feel blessed we got something this year, to be honest,” Draheim said.
At least 10 people have died in grain storage-related accidents since July in Minnesota. That’s far above the annual average of grain storage-related deaths, according to Purdue University’s Agricultural Safety and Health Program.
One of the people killed was Landon Gran, an 18-year-old St. Peter High School student who was trapped inside a grain bin last August. His mother, Michele Gran, has since advocated for more farm safety mandates and testified in favor of the farm safety program bill in front of lawmakers this year.
That bill, dubbed “Landon’s Law,” expands a previous safety program for tractor rollover bars to include grain storage equipment. The program is voluntary for farmers, who can apply for grants to buy safety harnesses and auger cages, among other things.
Though the bill received widespread support earlier in the year, area lawmakers were unsure whether it would be funded after the state passed several emergency measures to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. A budget forecast released last week shows Minnesota is expected to swing from a $1.5 billion surplus to a $2.4 billion deficit by July 2021, which has spurred the Legislature to cut down funding on a variety of issues.
Brand credits early work done on the bill for the funding agreement in place this week. And he plans to push for more funding next year, when lawmakers will likely make cuts from the state budget.
“This won’t be the last year you’re going to hear about this,” he said. “I vow to do more, if I’m allowed to come back next year.”
Draheim also hopes to address farm safety, though he’s concerned fixing the state budget deficit will overshadow specific policy discussions.
“It’s hard to say what the priorities will be next year,” he said. “I think (farm safety) needs more money, but with the environment that we’re going to be in next year, it’s hard to go and say we’ll do that.”