Solar and budget are top topics at Farmers Union meeting

Solar energy and the federal budget were major topics at a rural issues discussion held April 6 by the Minnesota Farmers Union at Wintergreen’s in Isanti.

The discussion was one of 15 set up in communities across the state for Minnesota Farmers Union leadership and legislative workers to meet with local farmers, hear their concerns and answer their questions.

Local experts who spoke at the discussion included Rob Larew, vice president of government affairs for the National Farmers Union; Kim Havey, coordinator for the Made in Minnesota program at the Minnesota Department of Commerce; Gary Wertish, president of Minnesota Farmers Union; and Bryan Klabunde, vice president of Minnesota Farmers Union.

A significant portion of the discussion was devoted to energy issues. Havey spoke about renewable energy, particularly solar power, and took questions. He noted there is bipartisan support for a bill to increase the renewable energy standard on farms to 50 percent by 2040.

“The cost of implementing a 50 percent standard is minimally more expensive,” Havey said, “and very doable.”

In the long-term, Havey suggested, implementing higher renewable energy standards in the state will ultimately lower the state’s energy expenditures. He said Minnesota currently spends $18 billion to import fossil fuels.

“It’s feasible,” Havey said. “It’s inexpensive compared to the potential of rising fossil fuel costs.”

Havey voiced support for installing solar energy systems on farms. There is an app available that uses mapping data to determine what part of a property has the most potential to benefit from a solar power installation. Grants and loans from the Department of Energy can also help farmers finance solar projects on their properties. Solar energy is priced per watt, typically coming in at about $3 or $4 per watt.

“We’ve seen as low as $2 a watt,” Havey said.

Havey also dispelled some myths about solar energy, noting it is not necessary for a farm to have three phase power to install solar energy on a property, as some in attendance thought.

Larew spoke a little bit about uncertainty at the federal level over agricultural issues. A new Secretary of Agriculture has yet to be confirmed, which means the department of agriculture is understaffed for the time being.

“He will be the most delayed secretary of ag since the USDA was created by Abraham Lincoln,” Larew said.

There is also the looming issue of the proposed federal budget, which would cut the USDA by 21 percent.
Larew noted the USDA is 2 percent of the total U.S. budget, and the portion of the USDA’s budget that is related to farming amounts to one-quarter of 1 percent of the total U.S. budget. But he said the elements of the budget the Trump administration has proposed not touching, including military spending and entitlement programs like Social Security, amount to 75 percent of the country’s regular spending.

“Suddenly agriculture becomes a huge bullseye,” Larew said.