A win for clean-water crops and a sustainable agricultural economy

A bright, golden-yellow flower in the foreground, with the shapes of people evident in the background. They are standing in a field.

Lawmakers approved funding for both Forever Green and the market development grants program. Read how all FMR priorities fared this legislative session. (Photo by Dodd Demas)

Omnibus agriculture bill

House: 85-44
Senate: 49-17

Clean Water Fund recommendations

House vote: 101-31
Senate vote: 40-24

Growing a new, sustainable agricultural economy that also protects the river is all about the long game. But actions we take now will determine how quickly — or slowly — we get there. 

All of which is just to say that this legislative session was pretty good for clean-water crops, even if it didn’t ultimately meet our initial ambitions.  

First, the undeniably positive: Our two biggest clean-water crops priorities — funding for both Forever Green and the market development grants program — were included in a final omnibus agriculture bill the governor signed into law on Thursday, May 18.

Forever Green received an allocation of $1.604 million per biennium from the agriculture committees (an increase of $344,000 per biennium) and remains in the base budget, providing important funding stability as we plot the path ahead for clean-water crops.

Forever Green also received $6 million from the Clean Water Fund (which you can read more about here) to support its research and commercialization efforts. 

Both figures are high-water marks for Forever Green and show that state legislators and the Clean Water Council strongly believe in the potential of these crops.

"We can't wait to use these funds to advance our work to develop profitable crops that give farmers new tools to protect water and soil," Forever Green's Associate Director Dr. Mitch Hunter said.

Meanwhile, the market development grants program (which launched earlier this year thanks in large part to River Guardians) received $250,000 per year for the next two years. That matches the success we achieved in the 2022 session and essentially doubles the amount of state funding available to grow the business ecosystem for clean-water crops. It also raises our hopes that — much like Forever Green — this could become a familiar, widely-supported program.

Agriculture's small slice of the budget pie

Even with this success, there are lingering pangs of disappointment over a missed opportunity to make an even bigger commitment to sustainable agriculture and clean-water crops. Not because of the specific dollar figures, but instead what agriculture committees got to work with.

Democratic leaders set overall budget targets for each committee by dividing up the entirety of the budget pie according to their own priorities. Unfortunately, the agriculture committees were given a relatively small slice — one that forced committee chairs to make some tough decisions about how to spend limited resources. 

In a year when the Legislature made historic progress on many environmental issues, we're left wondering: What else could we have accomplished to protect our rivers and streams if just a little more attention had been given to agriculture?

A victory for clean-water crops

All that said, FMR and our friends in the sustainable farming and food systems community made an impassioned case for public investment this session. And in the end, lawmakers listened. 

They provided another round of bipartisan funding for clean-water crops, moving us closer to a sustainable agricultural economy.

Researchers spend years breeding new species. Companies and consumers need time to learn about crops and figure out their roles in the marketplace. Lawmakers want to see early results on a small scale before investing in large-scale public resources. Bit by bit, we build toward the future, and patience is a virtue even when we hear the clock ticking louder.

We deeply appreciate the leadership of House Agriculture Committee Chair Rep. Samantha Vang and her counterpart, Sen. Aric Putnam, in moving this legislation forward. 

We are also grateful for the work done by the bills' lead authors to keep these issues on the front burner: Rep. Ginny Klevorn and Sen. Judy Seeberger on Forever Green, and Rep. Jeff Brand and Sen. Heather Gustafson on the business development program. 

What else is in the agriculture package?

In addition to the support for clean water crops we described above, the bill also provides funding for:

  • A Climate Coordinator, a Meat & Poultry Processing Liaison, and a statewide Farm-to-Institution Coordinator within the Department of Agriculture, all of whom will help to implement the programs we care about.
  • The Emerging Farmers Office received $1.5 million in biennium funding, which is key to reducing barriers for farmers who have historically lacked institutional support. 
  • Initiatives that assist emerging farmers in gaining a foothold in the sector (including funding for the Emerging Farmers Office) to help diversify and strengthen our farm economy.
  • Helping Minnesotans access healthy, locally grown food, including via The Good Acre’s LEAFF program, farm-to-school programs, and funding for Second Harvest Heartland. 
  • Farm-to-school funding to bring fresh produce to our schools. 
  • Soil Health Financial Assistance Program to provide resources to promote soil healthy practices statewide. 

We would like to congratulate our hardworking colleagues on all these successes.

Previous 2023 updates

April 11: Clean-water crops poised for more funding — but how much, and when?

Forever Green crop research: Midsession status

Senate Forever Green: $1.95M in base funding in SF1955 DE
House Forever Green: $1.06M in one-time funding and $1.26M in base funding in HF 2278 DE1 

Value chain development grants: Midsession status

Senate value chain grants: $1M in one-time funding and $250K in base funding in SF 1955 DE
House value chain grants: $1M in one-time funding in HF 2278 DE1 

Clean-water crops, still in the relatively early stages of development, need support on two fronts. 

The Forever Green Initiative requires investments in equipment and infrastructure and also in ongoing expenses like researcher salaries — all of which will accelerate the process of getting these crops onto fields across Minnesota.

Meanwhile, we also need to develop robust markets for these crops, in order to ensure growers have regular buyers of their products. This is the basis of our "market-based" approach to sustainable agriculture. It's in this arena where the MN Department of Agriculture's continuous living cover value chain development grants program, which provides startup capital to local businesses working with these crops, will show value. 

In order to make clean-water crops a reality on the landscape, we need to get these market-based mechanisms in gear and ensure that businesses and researchers can plan around longer-term expenses (such as staffing). That is precisely why FMR has been asking the Legislature for quick infusions of one-time funding alongside an increase in base funding.

Where things stand coming out of the break

The House and Senate's current proposals regarding clean-water crops emphasize markedly different approaches to divvying up the money.

When it comes to funding for the Forever Green Initiative, the House would essentially keep the programs' base funding steady while adding $1 million in one-time money. Compare that to the Senate's version, which forgoes the one-time money in favor of a decent increase in base funding (an extra $345,000 per year).

The difference isn't as stark when it comes to the value chain development grants program. Both the House and Senate are proposing $1 million in one-time money for the program. However the Senate earmarked an additional $250,000 per year in base funding (something the House version lacks).

In both cases, FMR and our colleagues in the Forever Green Partnership prefer the Senate proposals (which are included in the Omnibus Agriculture bill senators advance by a 58-7 margin on April 13, setting the stage for conference committee negotiations once the House advances its agriculture package).

Unfortunately, even that chamber's proposal falls well short of meeting the demonstrated needs. Crop research and commercialization are expensive but can also have an enormous payoff.

March 6: Clean-water crops clear final hurdle before budget talks

Important funding for clean-water crops is on track to be included in the legislative budget discussions, thanks to a successful final committee hearing.

The House Agriculture Finance and Policy Committee heard testimony on two bills related to clean-water crops during a Feb. 28 hearing at the Capitol. Much like the Senate committee hearing from early February (which you can read more about in the prior updates below), testifiers shared compelling stories in support of the complementary bills.

Anne Schwagerl, a grain farmer from western Minnesota and vice president of the Minnesota Farmers Union, spoke in support of HF 1492, which would provide much-needed additional resources to the University of Minnesota’s Forever Green Initiative as it continues to develop clean-water crops.

Schwagerl said the successful development and commercialization of these crops “will help our family farmer members across the state of Minnesota add value and diversity to their farming operations, deliver important ecosystem benefits and remain resilient in the face of climate change.”

Schwagerl also spotlighted how the clean-water crops on her farm handled last spring’s excessive rain. The Kernza plot soaked up the rain “like a sponge” and the winter camelina held the soil in place — while other fields struggled.

Later in the hearing, committee members heard from testifiers regarding HF 1645 — a bill that Perennial Pantry Founder Christopher Abbott described as “kickstarting the flywheel” for commercializing these crops.

“Farmers will have companies to sell to, consumers will have products to buy, and the state’s early investment will grow the tax base, create jobs, and continue Minnesota’s position as a global leader in agriculture,” he said.

Wilber De La Rosa, manager of Farmer Outreach and Technical Assistance with the Regenerative Agriculture Alliance, said state support for value chain development will allow the organization to provide more service to its network, which includes many immigrant and BIPOC farmers who are interested in regenerative agriculture.

“Our organization doesn’t operate in a vacuum. We need a healthy business and farming ecosystem for regenerative agriculture,” De La Rosa said. “Our organization is just one of the many businesses and organizations that can benefit from this bill, and your support will help us reach our goals.”

Our thanks to the lead authors of each bill, Rep. Ginny Klevorn on HF 1492 and Rep. Jeff Brand on HF 1645, as well as supportive co-authors. And thank you to the committee chair Rep. Samantha Vang as well as the rest of the committee members for their time and questions.

What comes next?

This House committee hearing was the last expected hurdle ahead of impending budget negotiations. In both the House and Senate, they will likely become part of a larger agriculture budget bill (which is called an “omnibus” bill). 

Between now and when those budget discussions begin in earnest, FMR will be working with other members of the Forever Green Partnership to ensure clean-water crops receive the full funding amounts currently written into the legislation. 

While we’re optimistic these bills will continue to receive bipartisan support (just as clean-water crops legislation did last year), we may soon need your support to help get these bills cross the finish line! There will be an opportunity to weigh in by sending a message to your state legislator. Sign up to be a River Guardian to be sure you don’t miss it.

Learn more about clean-water crops and the Forever Green Initiative.

Feb. 16: A strong show of support for clean-water crops at the Capitol

A group of Minnesota growers, farmers, entrepreneurs and researchers gathered at the Capitol earlier this month to express their support for clean-water crops.

“How often do you get the chance to work on a crop that, in my opinion, is the most direct way to address the mounting climate and environmental challenges that our state faces today, while encouraging entrepreneurship?” asked Ben Penner, a farmer and the vice president of Perennial Promise Growers Cooperative, during a Feb. 8 legislative hearing. “This is truly a once-in-a-lifetime chance.”

Penner was one of 11 individuals to testify in front of the Senate Agriculture, Broadband, and Rural Development committee in support of two complementary bills currently being considered by the Legislature. 

One of the bills (SF 1314) would ensure the University of Minnesota’s Forever Green Initiative gets the funding it needs. Teams there are developing clean-water crops (such as Kernza, winter camelina and hybrid hazelnuts) that have the potential to keep agricultural pollutants from entering Minnesota’s waters while diversifying our farm landscapes and boosting rural communities.

The other bill (SF 1353) channels start-up funding to the small- and mid-sized supply chain businesses that bring these crops from the farmgate to consumers. Seed processors, food makers and other local entrepreneurs need early assistance to create the new markets for clean water crops, but once such systems are up and running, they will be a key contributor to the Minnesota ag economy.

"Everyone involved in agriculture feels a surge in consumer demand for food that's produced using regenerative agricultural principles,” said Mac Ehrhardt, president of Albert Lea Seed. “You might think that’s just folks who shop at Whole Foods, but it’s not.”

Ehrhardt went on to note a significant surge in demand from growers for Kernza and winter camelina seeds in recent years, as well as the need for the “system knowledge and agronomic best management practices that farmers need to plant these crops successfully on their farm.”

During the hearing, lawmakers were given two Kernza products to try: A cereal from General Mills called Climate Smart Kernza Grains (which Sen. Torrey Westrom lightheartedly described as “almost like frosted flakes”), and crackers from Twin Cities-based start-up Perennial Pantry. 

“Put something tasty in front of [people] and that builds a customer base,” said Forever Green Initiative Associate Director Dr. Mitch Hunter. “That trickles down to creating a market for the farmers.”

You can watch the hearing and listen to the full comments on YouTube.

We want to give a big thanks to all of the testifiers and to the lead sponsors of this important legislation: Sens. Heather Gustafson and Judy Seeberger. We’re also encouraged to see clean-water crops once again proving to be a bipartisan issue, with DFL senators (our two leads plus the committee’s chair, Sen. Aric Putnam) joining their Republican colleagues (Sens. Westrom, Dahms, and Dornick) as co-authors of these bills. 

FMR is now preparing for another round in the House of Representatives, with a committee hearing scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 23. Our goal is to have both clean-water crops bills ultimately included in an end-of-session package known as an omnibus bill.

Jan. 31: Action Alert: Support clean-water crops that protect MN's rivers

One of FMR’s top goals this legislative session is to build on the uniquely bipartisan support we saw for clean-water crops in 2022. An upcoming committee hearing will go a long way toward ensuring we’re on the right track — and you can help.

The Minnesota Senate’s Agriculture, Broadband, and Rural Development committee(link is external) will hear testimony on Wednesday, Feb. 8 about two FMR-supported bills related to clean-water crops.

The first bill (SF 1314(link is external)) would ensure the University of Minnesota’s Forever Green Initiative receives the funding it needs to continue developing clean-water crops such as Kernza, winter camelina and hybrid hazelnuts. These cropping systems, when integrated into existing farm fields across the region, would reduce nitrate leaching and runoff pollution into our waters, making the Upper Midwest (as the New York Times put it) “the most forward-thinking agricultural region in the country.”

The second bill (SF 1353(link is external)) would support businesses that make up the supply chain that brings these crops to market. If passed, it would expand on the grant program FMR helped establish last session, speeding up how quickly the industry can scale to meet growing demand.

It’s critical legislators on the committee hear from their constituents about these two proposals. Use our form below to tell your senator to protect clean water crops.

Keep an eye on this page for more updates as we get closer to the Feb. 8 hearing.

(Don't see an action alert below? Sign up to be a River Guardian and we'll be in touch when the next important opportunity arises!)

Jan. 6: Clean-water crops get early boost from Clean Water Council

Clean-water crops received an early show of support ahead of this legislative session, a potential sign the bipartisan momentum seen last year may well carry into 2023.

The Minnesota Clean Water Council at its Dec. 19 meeting finalized its recommendations for how the state should spend money in the Clean Water Fund over the next two years. The recommendations include $6 million for our top legislative priority this session: continued support for the University of Minnesota’s Forever Green Initiative.

There are a lot of reasons to be excited about the clean-water crops being advanced by teams at the Forever Green Initiative, and FMR will work to gain additional support from the Legislature for two measures: 

  1. Critical state investment in both the Forever Green Initiative and Forever Green Partnership, which together provide the research and organizational muscle to make clean-water crops a reality
  2. A boost to the “Continuous Living Cover Value Chain Development Fund" that FMR helped establish last session

We're excited to share more updates in the weeks and months ahead. In the meantime, you can read more about the environmental promise of these clean-water crops here.

Upcoming Events

Tuesday, September 26, 2023 - 4:00pm to 6:00pm
Hastings Sand Coulee SNA, Hastings
Thursday, September 28, 2023 - 6:00pm to 8:00pm
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Ole Olson prairie, Mississippi River, Minneapolis skyline

Celebrate 30 years of FMR!

For our 30th anniversary, our wish is for you to join us in restoring, protecting and enhancing the Mississippi River.