Area lawmakers say there’s still hope for farm safety legislation this session spurred by a spate of grain storage-related deaths over the past year.
The bill would expand a tractor rollover bar fund into a general farm safety program, where farmers could voluntarily purchase grain bin safety harnesses, auger cages and other types of safety equipment.
Area legislators made the bill a priority this session as they look to stem an extraordinary increase in grain storage accidents in Minnesota.
“The farm safety bill still has legs,” said Rep. Jeff Brand, DFL-St. Peter. “It’s still moving in both the House and Senate.”
At least 10 people have died in grain storage-related accidents since July. That’s far above the annual average of grain storage-related deaths, according to Purdue University’s Agricultural Safety and Health Program.
An annual report shows shows 61 incidents that took place inside grain storage or transport facilities in the U.S. in 2018. Of those, 30 involved workers entrapped in grain, while 11 were equipment-related. The report shows 27 out of those 61 incidents were fatal, on par with the average yearly number of these kinds of deaths in the U.S.
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 bill in front of lawmakers this year.
Brand authored the bill in the House while Sens. Nick Frentz, DFL-North Mankato, and Rich Draheim, R-Madison Lake, took up the measure in the Senate. House and Senate agricultural committees took up the bill earlier this year; it was expected to go before the full House and Senate last month before the coronavirus hit Minnesota.
Gov. Tim Walz is also behind the measure, which would allocate $250,000 a year toward safety equipment grants. Walz included farm safety funding in his revised supplemental budget recommendations to the Legislature in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite its bipartisan support, farm safety funding’s fate rests on whether lawmakers can agree to a budget bill outside of coronavirus-related legislation this session.
State officials estimate Minnesota will likely head into a budget deficit next year due to the virus. Lawmakers may drop farm safety funding and other measures they would normally prioritize to ensure the state can continue addressing COVID-19.
“It’s not clear yet,” Frentz said. “The consensus is we’re still going into deficit. Most of that is for COVID-19 projects, so it’s still uncertain whether we’ll be able to talk about farm safety.”
Draheim takes a more pessimistic view of the bill’s chances. He said it’s unlikely lawmakers will put money into farm safety when pork processing and meatpacking plants are closing, which could have drastic effects on Minnesota’s agricultural economy.
“I hate to say it, but I really don’t know,” Draheim said. “It’s hard for me to push for farm safety if we’re looking at that. It’ll unfortunately be pushed back, I’m afraid.”
Draheim expects lawmakers to put together help for pork producers across the state, in part to stem ongoing agricultural losses. Practically every facet of Minnesota agriculture has been hit by COVID-19.
, from pork producers euthanizing hogs to corn and soybean growers seeing less demand for biofuels.