Governor hears from both sides at Northfield buffer meeting

NORTHFIELD, Minn. — First the governor was going to attend, then he wasn't and in the end, Gov. Mark Dayton sat in Dave Legvold's shed Monday to listen to comments on his proposed buffer initiative.

Northfield farmer Dave Legvold, left, and Gov. Mark Dayton talk during an April 6 visit to a buffer on land farmed by Legvold in Dakota County.

NORTHFIELD, Minn. — First the governor was going to attend, then he wasn't. In the end, Gov. Mark Dayton sat in Dave Legvold's shed Monday to listen to comments on his proposed buffer initiative.

More than 100 people crowded into the shed, exceeding the capacity of folding chairs. Many stood, moving to the front of the crowd to speak at the event hosted by the Cannon River Watershed Partnership and the Dakota/Rice County Corn and Soybean Growers.

Commenters were nearly evenly split in favor of the proposal and in opposition.

Kevin Auslund, of the group Sportsmen Take Action, drew applause for his comments that buffers are safety nets for clean water and wildlife and it's time to get them installed.

David Gross, a part-time lawyer and part-time tree farmer, also drew applause for his remarks that if the governor wants buffers as a public use, he can use eminent domain and take the land and pay landowners for it.


Gross, who knew the governor in high school, asked Dayton to stop trying to guilt landowners into giving their land away for a public use.

Legvold said he's implemented buffers on his own, but buffers aren't the only practice to improve water quality. What's happening on the upland areas must be addressed, too.

Farmers have to look at tillage, he said. In Minnesota, less than 4 percent of farmers use no till, compared to nearly 30 percent in Iowa and more than 30 percent in South Dakota.

Half of the organic matter in Minnesota soils has been lost since settlement. Soil with higher organic matter has more water holding capacity.

And buffers can't only apply to private lands. A Dodge County farmer gave the governor a picture of a creek passing through his farm with well-maintained buffers and a second of overgrown state land with no buffers.

What good is it for me to put in buffers if the state doesn't, he asked.

After holding up the photos for the audience to see, the governor passed them to Tom Landwehr, commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources. The buffer requirement will apply to public landowners, too, Dayton said.

Another audience member said that if Minnesota lawmakers don't do the things they need to do to improve water quality, the state could face a lawsuit similar to the one the Des Moines Water Works filed against drainage districts in Sac, Calhoun and Buena Vista counties in Iowa. The suit alleges that the nitrates the city has to take out of its drinking water are coming from tile drainage systems in the three counties.


He asked that the governor consider lowering property taxes on land used for conservation.

"I'm really proud of the governor for identifying this problem and stepping forward to do something about it," said Rep. David Bly, DFL-Northfield.

The condition of the water is something everyone needs to be concerned about, he added.

Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, the chief author of the governor's initiative in the House, said buffers are one of many things farmers do to address water quality.

"The right size buffer in the right place is a very important soil conservation tool," he said.

And while he thanked the governor for bringing the initiative forward, he said he has concerns about the one-size-fits-all approach of buffers.

Under existing law, a 16.5 foot buffer is required on public ditches that have been redetermined. Shoreland rules — made by a state agency, but carrying the weight of law — require a 50-foot buffer on public waters.

In an interview after the meeting, Dayton said 50 feet is a starting point for discussion. He's learned that the Soil and Water Conservation Districts are key in reaching his goal of improving water quality. He's open to whatever works best and whatever makes progress in making the water in the state's rivers, streams, lakes and ditches cleaner.


He said he didn't attach a funding component to his proposal because he didn't want it thrown out based on dollars. Instead, he understands that landowners will qualify for the federal Conservation Reserve Program to install buffers.

Riparian buffers are an eligible practice for enrollment in the CRP continuous signup, as long as the landowner and the land meet certain eligibility requirements, said Wanda Garry, chief agriculture program specialist with the Farm Service Agency in Minnesota.

To be eligible for enrollment, an owner must have owned the land for the last 12 months and the land must have a cropping history from four of the last six years — 2008-2013.

In addition, a resource concern must be addressed. Farmers remain eligible as long as they haven't received an individual letter of violation, Garry said. There is a federal cap on CRP acres, and a state cap, but there are plenty of acres eligible to enroll the projected 125,000 acres that would be required to have buffers under the governor's original proposal.

In Minnesota, riparian buffers are generally 30 feet to 120 feet wide and there is also an infeasible-to-farm provision that allows for the enrollment of additional acres, Garry said. If enrolled in CRP, a landowner receives a payment for 10 to 15 years and options exist to re-enroll.

Rental rates are in the process of being reviewed and updated based on the latest rental rate data from the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Whether or not farmers qualify for the Conservation Reserve Program to install a buffer is dependent upon how the bill is written by the Minnesota Legislature, Garry said. The federal program will not be changing to meet the requirements of a law passed in Minnesota.

After the governor had left and the crowd dwindled, Legvold paused a moment and offered his assessment: "The opportunity to have these discussions is very important."


Gov. Mark Dayton rides to the field to look at a buffer with farmer Dave Legvold at the wheel.

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