ST. PAUL — Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz and most of the state's congressional delegation on Thursday, July 15, called on the head of the United States Department of Agriculture to let farmers graze or hay on Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres in areas hit hardest by drought.

In separate letters, Walz and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, along with Reps. Jim Hagedorn, Angie Craig, Dean Phillips, Tom Emmer, Michelle Fischbach and Pete Stauber, asked USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack to let Minnesota livestock farmers open up CRP lands for emergency grazing and haying in areas experiencing Level D2 or greater drought conditions. Roughly 40% of the state has reached that drought level.

“We must do everything we can to address the challenges our farmers and ranchers are facing due to the severe drought conditions plaguing our state. That’s why I’m asking the U.S. Department of Agriculture for assistance,” Walz said. “The USDA’s ongoing support of Minnesota’s agricultural industry is well-recognized across the state, and with their continued assistance, our livestock producers will have a brighter outlook as we endure these harsh conditions and look forward to a thriving future.”

CRP lands are typically left out of agricultural production to help prevent soil erosion, improve water quality and limit the loss of wildlife habitats. Farmers get a rental payment for keeping the acres out of use. And aside from emergency situations, the lands can't be used to haying or grazing before August 1.

"With current drought conditions quickly worsening across the state, CRP acres could again be used to help alleviate the shortage of hay and available grazing lands for livestock while still promoting programmatic benefits of habitat and wildlife conservation," the legislators wrote.

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In response to the worsening drought, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture's Rural Finance Authority (RFA) Board on Wednesday, July 14, declared an emergency due to the dry conditions. The determination opened up zero-interest loans for farmers in areas struggling from a lack of rain.

The funds can be used to make up for lost revenue or expenses not covered by insurance, Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen said.

Follow Dana Ferguson on Twitter @bydanaferguson, call 651-290-0707 or email dferguson@forumcomm.com