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College professor ready to learn as new Minnesota Senate Ag Committee leader

Aric Putnam was elected to his second term in the Minnesota Senate in the November general election, which saw the Democratic Farmer and Labor Party flip enough Senate seats from red to blue that the party now controls both houses of the Legislature and saw Gov. Tim Walz win a second term. Putnam will chair the Senate Agriculture Committee

Aric Putnam mug.jpg
Aric Putnam will be the chairman of Senate Agriculture, Rural Development and Broadband Committee
Courtesy / Aric for MN
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ST. PAUL — State Sen. Aric Putnam admits he doesn’t know a lot about farming, but as a scholar, he’s ready to take a crash course to prepare to lead the Minnesota Senate Agriculture Committee.

Putnam, a Democrat from St. Cloud, was named to his leadership post just before the Minnesota Farmers Union state convention and went to the event Nov. 19 to be introduced.

“The first thing I said was, ‘I don't seem like a clear fit for this,’” Putnam said. “I still think that the committee is a space to do great things for the whole state. So the full title is Agriculture, Rural Development and Broadband, so there's a lot of stuff in that jurisdiction that I think I can help with.”

Putnam was elected to his second term in the Minnesota Senate in the November general election, which saw the Democratic Farmer and Labor Party flip enough Senate seats from red to blue that the party now controls both houses of the Legislature and saw Gov. Tim Walz win a second term.

Thom Petersen.jpg
Thom Petersen

Walz is reappointing Thom Petersen as agriculture commissioner, and Putnam was to meet with Petersen before Thanksgiving. For Putnam, who teaches at St. John’s University and the College of St. Benedict, that is part of his crash course before the 2023 legislative session starts on Jan. 3.

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“My day job is as a scholar, so I've already asked for like 10 books on agriculture,” Putnam said. “I'm going to try to put together a tour of different parts of the state before January, because you get a better idea of how agriculture matters differently in different parts of the state.”

Putnam replaces Republican Sen. Torrey Westrom of Elbow Lake as chair of the Senate Ag Committee. In the 2022 legislative session, Sen. Erin Murphy of St. Paul was the ranking Democrat on the committee, which Putnam was not on.

On him being selected as Ag Committee chair, “I do think that it's a sign that the caucus is trying to prioritize voices in greater Minnesota. Why I got it, I think, it's because I'm not from the 612,” Putnam said, referring to the Twin Cities area code.

Agriculture was one of the only areas where the Minnesota Legislature was able to get something done in the 2022 session when Republicans controlled the Senate and Democrats controlled the House.

Emergency drought relief and funding to respond to the highly pathogenic avian influenza were among the items that were addressed.

The 2021 session was to spend money from Minnesota’s huge budget surplus. The 2023 session will set the Minnesota Department of Agriculture budget — a $100 million biennial budget.

Petersen said disease response still is a top priority.

“Making sure we have resources to deal with avian influenza and the potential African swine fever outbreak in our state,” Petersen said. “We were hit pretty hard this last year, the (avian flu) virus has kind of hung around.”

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Petersen said despite the change in Senate leadership, he seeks bipartisan support.

“Yes, the DFL has a majority but we’re still going to need to work on things … reach across the aisle,” Petersen said.

Some of the things that are important to the Ag Department for possible funding:

  • Value-added processing.
  • Meat processing.
  • Soil health and developing third crops.
  • Biofuels.
  • Bringing in the next generation of farmers.

“We'll be looking at a very large ask through bonding to make sure that our Rural Finance Authority has enough money to make loans to farmers. Our beginning farmer loan is our number one loan,” Petersen said.
Putnam said a new generation of farmers is a priority.

"One thing that's important to me from talking to farmers, my community and just from my day job, I'd like to see us do some real intentional work on getting more people into farming, especially young people," Putnam said.

Reach Jeff Beach at jbeach@agweek.com or call 701-451-5651 (work) or 859-420-1177.
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