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Vinny Harvieux / Staff photo by Ryan Kastenschmidt 

Sophomore Avery Stilwell is greeted by her teammates at home plate after hitting a home run Tuesday, April 9. Stilwell hit a home run against Rockford and Glencoe-Silver Lake, accounting for two of Litchfield's five home runs in two games.

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USDA releases Farm Bill updates, loan limit increases

The USDA announced Friday that the Farm Bill, signed into law December 2018, will begin rolling out provisions as quickly as possible.

“We know the programs that are renewed and updated in this Farm Bill are critical to farmers, ranchers and producers as they plan for the future,” said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue in a recent press release.

The USDA’s mission areas have all held several public listening sessions, both formally and informally, to receive stakeholder input, Purdue stated.

“Our goal is to have programs that function best for the people that we serve,” Purdue said. “We have made progress in new Farm Bill provisions, and look to implement programs that are customer-service focused and economically efficient. We still have a lot of work ahead of us, but we are diligently working on behalf of all of USDA’s customers.”

Sen. Tina Smith and Rep. Collin Peterson visited Litchfield April 5 to discuss options for dairy farmers who may be struggling due to slumping commodity prices and several years of slow economic development.

Both Peterson and Smith asserted that informing farmers of provisions in the new Dairy Margin Coverage Program was critical.

“When people are trying to make decisions potentially about the future of their business, they need good information about how that program is going to work,” Smith said at the April 5 meeting.

Progress on Margin Protection Program

To help dairy farmers plan for their future income and loan needs, the USDA released information on the progress of Title I programs implementation.

One of the programs that will retroactively pay farmers insurance benefits from Jan. 1, the Dairy Margin Coverage Program, will also offer reimbursements by May 1 to eligible producers for previously paid Margin Protection Program Dairy premiums paid from 2014 to 2017.

Sign up for the new Dairy Margin Coverage Program will begin June 17 with payments rolling out shortly after signup. Additionally, farmers who had coverage under the Livestock Gross Margin for Dairy Cattle Program in 2018 can retroactively participate in the MPP-Dairy program for 2018.

In an effort to help farmers better understand premiums and coverage options under the Dairy Margin Protection Program, the Office of the Chief Economist is working with the University of Wisconsin to develop an insurance decision tool available to producers by May 1. 

Loan limit increases

As of April 12, the USDA said it is making progress on implementing several provisions within the Farm Bill, as well as offering higher limits for borrowers in the USDA’s farm loan program. These loans can be used to purchase farms or cover operating expenses, according to the USDA.

As natural disasters, trade disruptions and persistent pressure on commodity prices continue to impact agricultural operations, farm loans become increasingly important to farmers and ranchers, said Richard Fordyce, Farm Service Administration administrator.

“The 2018 Farm Bill provides increased loan limits and more flexibility to farm loans, which gives producers more access to credit when they need it most,” Fordyce said.

The loans receiving increased limits are:

  • Direct Operating Loan: Limit increased from $300,000 to $400,000.
  • Guaranteed Operating Loan: Limit increased from $1.49 million to $1.75 million. These loans will help producers pay for normal operating expenses, such as purchasing equipment, machinery, livestock feed, seed and more, according to the USDA.
  • The Direct Farm Ownership Loan: Limit increased from $300,000 to $600,000.
  • Guaranteed Farm Ownership Loan: Limit increased from $1.42 million to $1.75 million. Farm ownership loans help producers become owner-operators of family farms as well as improve and expand current operations.
  • Other changes: Producers can now receive both a $50,000 Farm Ownership Microloan and a $50,000 Operating Microloan. Previously, microloans were limited to a combined $50,000.

"Additionally, producers who previously received debt forgiveness as part of an approved FSA restructuring plan are now eligible to apply for emergency loans," the USDA wrote in a press release. "Previously, these producers were ineligible. Beginning and socially disadvantaged producers can now receive up to a 95 percent guarantee against the loss of principal and interest on a loan, up from 90 percent."

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Bids for MnDOT road projects come in at nearly $2M over estimate

As a result of MnDOT overlooking costs for dewatering associated with storm sewer improvements on parts of Highway 12 and bid estimates coming in higher than estimated, the city of Litchfield’s portion of the cost for the project increased by $726,000.

Despite the higher-than-expected bid amount and additional cost the city will take on, council members voted in favor of the amended resolution to take on the additional storm sewer replacement costs and to state their intent to go through with the project. MnDOT’s original cost agreement did not include the city paying for a portion of dewatering costs and the agency amended its agreement with the city for the construction project.

However, in almost a stroke of luck and due to the city filing for grant funds, MnDOT found $590,000 in unspent Local Road Improvement Program funds, said Chuck DeWolf, city engineer.

MnDOT received a total of four bids for the reconstruction project however, did not release the other bid amounts to the city and will not until the project is awarded, DeWolf said.

“MnDOT said we will receive the final award letter on this later this week,” DeWolf said.

The grant fund will reimburse the city. The project was originally estimated at $9.1 million, but the lowest bid for the project was just shy of $11 million, DeWolf said.

“We’ve got to pay for this up front before we do the project,” he said. “The city’s total cost is $4,467,866.03 to MnDOT, which includes the additional $726,000.”

With the reimbursement grant funds of $590,000, the city’s additional expenditures round up to nearly $176,000. Although the city has not received the grant award letter as of April 15, DeWolf said MnDOT told him the city will receive the grant.

“It’s starting to (be) a pretty stifling cost for the city of Litchfield,” said Council Member Vernon Loch.

DeWolf said if the city did not approve the amended agreement, the reconstruction project would not happen.

“We have no choice,” DeWolf said. “If you decide not to fund the project, it doesn’t go forward.”

The council discussed not redoing the storm sewer lines at the same time as the project, but DeWolf stated that it would still need to be replaced and MnDOT would have to let bids again without the storm sewer project.

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'Our goal is water quality'

Efforts to stem the spread of aquatic invasive species to Lake Minnie Belle in Greenleaf Township have some local anglers concerned about losing public access to the lake. The group that is spearheading the effort, however, says its only goal is to keep the lake free of AIS such as zebra mussels and starry stonewort.

“Our goal is water quality,” said Steve Hatlestad, a member of the Lake Minnie Belle Improvement Association. “We’re doing everything we can to try to protect that. We’re not trying to privatize the lake, we’re not trying to restrict access or anything else.”

As part of its goal, the lake association has tried to work with other groups such as the Greenleaf Township Board and Beckville Lutheran Church Board to regulate boating and fishing on properties owned by those groups. The purpose is to force boaters and anglers to the DNR boat launch on the northeast side of the lake, where the association is working with Meeker County to have a trained inspector posted seven days a week.

“All we’re trying to do is funnel everyone through one landing and have the inspection done before they land their boat,” Hatlestad said. “It takes two minutes of their time (to be inspected).”

“Minnie Belle is one of the highest used lakes in Meeker County,” Hatlestad said. “It’s also the only pristine lake left in Meeker County. In mid-Minnesota, it’s probably in the top five lakes that are left, and that’s what we’re trying to protect.”

Despite the group’s goal of preventing the spread of AIS, members of the Department of Natural Resources oppose some of the group’s efforts.

“Our position as a state agency serving the general public is to promote access as much as possible, so we don’t support the closure of either of those properties,” said Eric Katzenmeyer, a DNR aquatic invasive species specialist stationed in Hutchinson. “That has been voiced at both the church meetings and the township, with the understanding that those groups can decide to do what they want with their property.”

Regulating access

Hatlestad said the association is “looking at everything all around the lake” when it comes to AIS prevention.

“Anywhere there is access, we’re trying to educate people as to what the laws are,” he said.

For example, Hatlestad said there are plans to install signs with information about AIS laws at a fishing pier on the south side of the lake.

In other areas, however, the goal is to regulate access.

The Beckville Lutheran Church property is a popular place for swimming, picnics and shore fishing. Although the property is privately owned, the church has historically opened it for public use. Hatlestad said he approached the Church Board as a concerned citizen, not as a member of the association, to ask them to consider banning shore fishing for fear that AIS contaminated water from other lakes may be introduced into Lake Minnie Belle via bait buckets used by anglers.

Following discussion, votes and more discussion, the Church Board voted Sunday to keep its property open for public shore fishing.

“It really came down to that it is our gift to the community, and we want to share that gift,” Church Board president Stephanie Dougherty said. “It’s important to preserve and protect the lake, but we think there is a better way to do that through education.”

Another area the lake association asked for restrictions is at the boat launch on the west side of the lake controlled by Greenleaf Township. Hatlestad said the association requested this access be closed because some boaters were using it to avoid inspections at the DNR access.

“The west landing is seldom used, but a number of people witnessed, as soon as inspections began at the DNR landing, people would take their boat to the west landing and drop it in the water,” Hatlestad said. “The guy in the boat would drive across to the east landing and the pickup and trailer would drive over there and park. Then the guy in the pickup would hop in the boat and they would avoid the inspection.”

At its meeting last week, the Township Board voted to close the landing. Dan Barka, Greenleaf Township Board supervisor, said the reason for the closure was to help with AIS control, however people who live near the lake may request access.

“If someone from the public wants access through that, they can come to the township and apply for access,” Barka said. “But there will be a chain across that access for the time being.”

Increased inspections

The final piece of the association’s plan is increased inspections at the DNR landing on the northeast side of the lake. While Meeker County currently pays for an inspector Friday through Sunday, the association wants an inspector at the landing seven days a week.

According to Kristin Cote, Meeker County AIS Committee leader, the association would have to pay out of its own pocket for the additional four days of inspection. County commissioners would also have to approve an amendment to the county’s current contract with the Crow River Organization of Water, a joint powers board with representatives from 10 counties in the Crow River Watershed, including Meeker and McLeod. CROW is what’s known as the regulating government unit for the inspection program.

Steve Stepien, a member of the Lake Minnie Belle Improvement Association, said an addendum to the contract is expected to be presented to the Meeker County Board of Commissioners at its May 7 meeting. If approved, the additional inspections would go into effect May 13 through Sept. 1 and be paid for by the association.

“We will be spending some money,” Stepien said.

Inaugural Tour de Meeker cycling event comes this summer

Marc Vaillancourt, Meeker Memorial Hospital Foundation director and vice president for development and operations, loves to cycle. When he tells people he’s going out riding, they think he’s talking about motorcycles, but really, he’s taking the countryside by bike, one mile at a time.

In the past year from mid-April through October, Vaillancourt has ridden more than 2,500 miles of Meeker County’s countryside. As an avid cyclist who wanted to bring more riders to the annual Watercade Bike Ride, Vaillancourt approached the Watercade Committee.

“I asked if I could take over the event, and they turned it over to me and the hospital foundation,” he said. “They told me, ‘It’s all yours.’”

This year’s annual Watercade Bike Ride received an upgrade and a name change to the Tour de Meeker, a play on famed cycling events such as the Tour de France, Vaillancourt said.

“We are going to hold it on the same day as the (Watercade Bike Ride) usually is,” he said. “Watercade had two lengths cyclist could chose from, but we will have five — the five-mile, family-friendly cycling route, 15-mile, 25-miles, 50 miles and a metric century, which is 62 miles.”

The event will take place July 13, beginning at the Meeker Memorial Hospital west parking lot. There will also be no group start, so participants can begin the route anytime between 7-9 a.m. Metric Century riders must depart before 8 a.m. The only group start event will be 9 a.m. for the family-friendly, 5-mile route around Lake Ripley to accommodate for other Watercade activities.

Each route takes cyclist through parts of Meeker County to explore its vast and beautiful countryside, which Vaillancourt has explored on his own bike.

“Cycling is a really great way for me to stay active,” he said. “It has allowed me to explore and discover Meeker County in a unique way — it’s a more intimate discovery of the farmlands and countryside.”

The registration fee for the Tour de Meeker is $35 for 18 years and older, no matter which length a person rides, and free for kids. Each participant will receive a water bottle and T-shirt, provided by Ramsey Printing and Design and sponsored by Langmo Farms of Litchfield, with their registration. All of the proceeds will go toward the Meeker Memorial Foundation’s Greatest Needs fund, Vaillancourt said.

“We wanted to keep the cost low so that everyone could participate, and it goes toward a great cause,” he said. “It’s a fundraiser for the hospital and a mission to support the hospital and serve the people of Meeker County.”

For those who choose to take the longer routes, a “Sag Wagon” will be available to help fix tires, pump them up or whatever a rider may need along the route. There are also rest stops along the route for riders who need a break or a quick snack. Litchfield’s Bikes By Bob is sponsoring the sag wagon to help riders during this event.

“It’s what we call a supported ride,” Vaillancourt said. “There are rest stops, but if something happens while on the ride, we will do what we can to help you. I’ve been on rides where I had a flat tire or a spoke broke. During this ride, each participant will receive a wristband with the number of the sag wagon so they can call if something happens.”

Although the roads will not be closed for the event, Vaillancourt said safety of the ride is the number one priority.

“Everyone has to wear a bike helmet,” he said. “We are working with the county and meeting with the sheriff’s office to coordinate the ride. One day, if we have 2,000 riders, we may close the roads.”

In the miles he’s ridden around Meeker County, Vaillancourt said he could count on less than one hand how many uncomfortable encounters with motorists that he’s had.

“I’ve had a pretty pleasant experience riding out here,” he said. “The safety of our riders is important. Our participants need to also obey the rules of the road.”

The routes of the different rides can be found online at tourdemeeker.com with detailed maps and information regarding the event. Anyone interested in signing up can do so online. The family-fun ride will take place around Lake Ripley while the other routes explore various parts of Meeker County. The Metric Century will start south down County Road 1 to the southern shores and western side of Lake Minnie Belle. From there, cyclists will head east and south to County Road 18 and make their way north and east along the shores of Lake Washington, across Highway 15 into Dassel. After that, cyclists will head north and make their way west and then south to Darwin. The route will travel west again back into Litchfield and the start line.

Most of all, Vaillancourt said the event is just about having fun.

“It’s not a race,” he said. “You can just ride at your own meter. It’s just to support a good cause and have a good time.”