Farmers poke holes in Dayton's plan

GAYLORD, Minn. — Farmers poked holes in Gov. Mark Dayton's buffer proposal during a discussion on the hot topic March 31 in Gaylord. Minnesota Farmers Union Government Relations Director Thom Petersen outlined the pending legislation and lead...

GAYLORD, Minn. — Farmers poked holes in Gov. Mark Dayton's buffer proposal during a discussion on the hot topic March 31 in Gaylord. Minnesota Farmers Union Government Relations Director Thom Petersen outlined the pending legislation and lead discussion during the event Sibley County Farmers Union organized.

Dayton has asked the Legislature to pass measures that would require a 50-foot buffer on all perennial waterways.

"There are 550 miles of county ditch in Sibley County," said Frank Grimm, a Sibley County farmer and SCFU secretary/treasurer. With a 50-foot buffer, "we would lose 6,600 acres of land in production."

Though 50 feet seemed like a lot to attendees, it might be easier to swallow if a compensation mechanism was involved. Legislation that's sponsored in the Minnesota House of Representatives and Senate does not include any compensation to farmers for lost grain production land or seeding costs and the property will still be taxed.

A potential compensation source may be the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, Petersen said. Passed in 2008, the amendment generates more than $200 million per year. Petersen thinks compensating farmers from the fund would garner support.


There are some already standing options for financial or technical support through the federal, state or local government, including the Conservation Reserve Program, the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program or local watershed district efforts. Petersen cautioned, however, that allowed practices may vary county by county.

While legislation isn't set yet, there may be some allowance for alternative practices that would not require a 50-foot buffer in all cases. A combination of practices such as cover cros, a windbreak shelterbelt or grassed waterways may lead to no need for a buffer, according to the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources.

Another factor that may change by location is what plants will be allowed to be planted in the buffer. Some may require all native grasses while others may let more hay-favorable plants like alfalfa be planted in the buffer. Haying has been touted as one of the possible money-generating uses for the buffer area. A farmer at the Gaylord meeting noted that not many producers have the equipment to make hay anymore, however.

State Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen, who was in attendance, characterized the legislation, particularly the lack of compensation, as "un-Minnesotan, un-American and contrary to the principles our country was founded on."

Gruenhagen assured attendees of his opposition to the bill, HF1534. He's troubled by the lack of empirical evidence that 50 feet is the right width.

"I can't really figure out where they came up with the 50 feet," Gruenhagen said. "I won't vote for it."

While he couldn't attend in person due to a schedule conflict, Sen. Scott Newman sent a statement that also indicated he opposed the Senate bill, SF1537. His main concern revolved around implementation.

"It brings harm to farmers and landowners while circumventing due process," Newman wrote.


Due process on the bill-making side of things is a top reason Petersen would like to see the bill scrapped. With the legislature wrapping up for the year May 18, legislators have only six weeks to get buffer bills passed, while trying to sort out a myriad of other legislation, including budget bills.

Six weeks is "not a lot of time to work with farmers and tell them a different way they're going to have to use their land," Petersen said.

Rather than having something imperfect rushed through the legislature, Petersen is a fan of revisiting existing buffer laws, updating them if needed and better enforcing them. Currently, shorelands get 50-foot buffers, while public ditches redetermined after 1977 are required to have a one rod buffer (16.5 feet).

"Getting more buy-in and getting to what's proper and right may help," Petersen said. "We don't dispute the good buffers can do, but the concern we had (was whether) 50 feet was the right amount."

He thinks a lot of people would think not. One producer commented that he had seen no benefit to buffers beyond 16 feet when considering fertilizer or soil erosion.

Some conversation revolved around whether, if keeping nutrients out of the water was the aim, buffers on drainage ditches would even make a difference, particularly since most water there comes through tile lines rather than running directly off the field via the buffer and into the ditch. The buffer proposal doesn't look like it will affect tile intakes. There was producer interest in how water quality tests have changed over time and whether that's been taken into consideration in regard to buffers.

Farmers know drinking water quality is a real concern. Petersen noted that St. Peter had to add a nitrate removal system at it's water treatment facility. It's important to reinforce the practices farmers are already using to improve water quality, Petersen said.

Another question involves the manpower to implement a buffer law locally. Just getting buffers established may be a challenge with limited local soil and water conservation district staff and a short time frame. In addition, it's not clear yet that if SWCD finds a farmer out of compliance whether they should or would be able to issue a penalty. Local SWCD personnel can help producers implement their buffer, "but we don't want to turn them into buffer cops," Petersen said.


Another reason for pause on the buffer issue is because it's unclear yet what, if any, effect the federal Waters of the United States initiative will have on farmers. Also, Minnesota's Nutrient Fertilizer Management Plan is being updated for the first time in 20 years this year. Petersen would like to see those items settled before the state puts any additional buffer provisions on farmers.

Gruenhagen and Petersen think it's fairly unlikely a buffer bill will pass. Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook County, is a common sense guy from a rural area, Gruenhagen said. With potential gubernatorial hopes, Bakk isn't likely to rile rural constituents with a strong backing for a buffer measure.

Petersen expects the end result might be something closer to a proposal to look at current buffer law, including how to deal with farmers with poor conservation practices and a way to offer financial incentives for those who need to institute a buffer.

"I'd like to see a different proposal with a slower approach," Petersen said. "Farmers have gotten the black eye on this."

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