The farmer's encroachment
WORTHINGTON -- Take a drive in the country these days and you may notice a changing landscape -- one in which some farmers are inching their implements beyond what used to be fence rows and plowing up portions of public rights of way.
Farmers may be doing so because they've lost their guides to separate farm field from road ditch -- or they may be more deliberate in their actions in hopes of capitalizing on every inch of ground they can get to grow $7-plus corn and $12-plus soybeans.
Nobles County Public Works Director Stephen Schnieder would like to think encroachment into rights-of-way isn't deliberate, but even so there is protocol in place for farmers who don't adhere to the required setbacks.
On township roads in Nobles County, the public right-of-way extends 33 feet from the center of the road, while county roads and County State Aid Highways are 50 feet to 75 feet out from a road's center line.
These days, Schnieder is seeing those rights-of-way shortened by several feet along some county roads, and townships are also taking notice.
In some instances in Bigelow Township, the 33-foot right-of-way has been cut down to 25 to 27 feet, according to Bigelow Township Clerk Jane Krohn. She said it is becoming a safety issue with crops grown closer to the road.
"You've got to keep the intersections so you can see, especially if there's corn planted there," she said.
"With township roads in particular, the closer you (plant your crops to the road) the less sight distance you have coming out of driveways and at intersections," he said.
Encroachment into the right-of-way isn't just a safety hazard.
"The machinery has gotten so much bigger and the equipment so much heavier that if they do keep encroaching, we're worried about them breaking the base of the road," said Krohn.
Last month, the Bigelow Township board discussed the issue at its annual meeting and sent letters to all property owners in the township reminding them of the proper setbacks.
"We haven't had to force (the law) yet, but if it gets to be an issue ... the township reserves the right to go out and disk up that crop or destroy the crop," she said. "It's going to be their loss."
In Leota Township, board members took a stern stance on encroachment issues several years ago, and have had few problems since.
Brent Fiekema, Leota Township Clerk, said their township was advised to do something to protect their rights-of-way because of the liability involved.
"It is against the law," he said.
Members of the Leota Township board first approached violators in a face-to-face meeting and if they didn't see a response, the action was followed up with a certified letter.
"We destroyed crop in one instance," Fiekema said. "After that, we got pretty good cooperation."
Fiekema said it can be pretty easy for farmers to encroach on the right-of-way with the bigger equipment they use today.
"I don't think it's got much to do with the price (of corn and soybeans)," he said. "They just get too far over."
Schnieder said farmer encroachment into the right-of-way has been a problem for decades.
"It's become more prevalent as fence lines have been removed from the fields," he said. "There's nothing to create that visual or physical barrier. With larger equipment, it's a little harder to judge how far out they are."
Still, the law is the law, and the county has taken steps in just the last couple of years to notify farmers who are planting crops in the public right-of-way.
"We've probably sent out approximately 15 letters last year, and I still have some that I need to send out now this spring before everybody gets in the field," said Schnieder. The county has gone so far as to put markers in the rights-of-way to help farmers get back within their property line.
"If farmers don't restore the right-of-way and keep farming it, we will take additional action to stop them," Schnieder said. "That may include going out and mowing down the crop. You're not supposed to be farming the right-of-way, and you don't have the right to get the crop off of it."
Schnieder said he prefers to give farmers the benefit of the doubt that the encroachment didn't happen on purpose. Yet, high crop prices may be leading some to plow into the public right-of-way.
"Land values have been going up significantly, so if you can farm an extra five feet or 10 feet, it makes a difference in how many more acres you're going to get of production," he said. "Although it may sound good to have that in production, that isn't their land to farm."
Schnieder said the county's primary concern with encroachment into the rights-of-way is the environmental impact.
"Road ditches are usually meant to carry water, so if you're farming into the right-of-way, you don't have the vegetation on the side slope or going into the ditch bottom that helps hold that dirt in place," he said. "You can get more erosion in the road ditch where it carries that silt down to our culverts, into the streams and rivers."
Once the silt fills in the culvert, then the township or county has to clean out the culverts and fix erosion areas so they drain properly. Those repairs would be funded by property tax revenue or the county's share of gas tax dollars through the state aid system.
Dan Livdahl, Okabena-Ocheda Watershed District Administrator, said the silt that ends up in the road ditches is carried off into the lakes and streams.
"It's not just a problem with drainage -- it's a soil erosion problem. When soil's in the field it's a resource -- when it's in the road ditch, it's now pollution and a maintenance problem for the road authority," Livdahl said.
Both Livdahl and Schnieder said encroachment into the public right-of-way isn't just happening in Nobles County -- it's happening all over farm country. Schnieder has fielded calls from other counties wondering how the issue is addressed here.
"We kind of have ... the perfect storm. Right now we've got the high prices of both land and agricultural goods, and the tools like Round-up Ready crops so it's really easy to run your spray boom over the ditch edge coming together at the same time," said Livdahl. "It's not just here. People are hoping to get that extra row in by the road."
Whether the encroachment is in a public right-of-way along a township gravel road or a paved county state aid highway, the farmer responsible is required to get the ditch restored.
"Even if it's not malicious, they're still the ones who caused the damage and they're still the ones who are responsible for restoring it," said Schnieder. If the property owner doesn't restore the ditch, the county will do the work, and send the farmer the bill.
Schnieder said if they refuse to pay the bill, the costs can be assessed on their property tax bill.
"It's not a winning proposition for the property owner if this happens," said Schnieder. "This is a misdemeanor -- it's against the law.
"The good news is, it's not of lot of people (who are encroaching in the right-of-way)," he added. "I think we're talking about a small percentage overall. In fairness to all the taxpayers, it's our responsibility to make sure everyone is following the rules."