Minnesota House would increase bird flu fight funding as deaths increase

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ST. PAUL—Minnesota representatives responded to avian flu Monday by seeking more money to fight the growing outbreak and giving farmers assistance.

On the day that state officials announced that more than 5 million birds have died or will be euthanized due to the flu, the House accepted proposals to increase flu spending as part of an overall agriculture funding bill. The House passed the overall bill by Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, 110-18 and overwhelmingly approved several amendments to increase avian flu funding.

While the federal government reimburses farmers for birds they euthanize, lawmakers opted to also provide low-interest loans for them to recover from the outbreak. Farmers would be eligible for up to $200,000 of loans to repopulate flocks, develop better security and improve infrastructure of poultry facilities.

“I think it is something we should do and I strongly support it,” Gov. Mark Dayton said, although he supports a $100,000 limit.

An amendment by Rep. Jeanne Poppe, D-Austin, passed to help fund mental health counseling for affected farmers.

Rep. Paul Anderson, R-Starbuck, was successful in amending the bill to provide an undetermined amount of state aid directly to farmers with flocks affected by the flu.

The bill includes funding for state agencies to battle the flu the next two years:

– $3.6 million to Agriculture Department.

– $1.8 million for Board of Animal Health.

– $544,000 for state and Willmar emergency operation centers.

– $350,000 for Department of Natural Resources.

– $103,000 for Health Department.

Dayton already signed the first step in the state’s flu-fighting funding into law. On Friday, he signed a bill giving nearly $900,000 to state agencies to help pay for their flu-related expenses this year.

The House also increased by 13 weeks the length of time poultry workers unemployed due to bird flu can receive unemployment insurance. The current limit is 26 weeks.

On the overall tax agriculture bill, representatives voted 89-37 to allow an industrial hemp growth study. It would be limited to research purposes and would not allow hemp to be a general crop, although supporters see that as their ultimate goal.

Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, said law enforcement officers oppose the measure because hemp and marijuana look and smell alike, even though a person cannot get high on hemp. He also said that because of their similarities, local governments will need to pay for tests to determine if what they confiscate is marijuana.

Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, said that the two crops are very different and hemp can be used to make many useful goods. She and Sen. Kent Eken, D-Twin Valley, have pushed their hemp bill this year as an economic development tool, with the possibility of manufacturers opening in the state to process hemp into items ranging from rope to clothes.

The overall House bill heads to the Senate and eventually to negotiations.

State officials Monday announced that Minnesota’s poultry H5N2 flu deaths now affect 80 farms in 21 counties.

The number of bird deaths, mostly turkeys, topped 5.3 million, with some flocks not yet counted. The figure includes those who have died from the flu and those that are being euthanized to prevent spread of the virus.

Monday’s report showed Renville and Nicollet counties reported their first flu deaths, with 1.1 million chickens in one Nicollet flock. The chicken flock the biggest Minnesota flock infected.

The report also showed Kandiyohi County continues to have by far the most affected flocks, 29, which is more than twice No. 2 Stearns County.

All affected farms are under quarantine. Birds on 71 farms have been euthanized.

Rural Republican legislators plan to provide free turkey burgers on the Capitol lawn Tuesday morning. Chips and lemonade will complete the menu, giving Capitol area workers a chance to support the state’s turkey industry, which produces 46 million birds a year.

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