WORTHINGTON - An estimated 200 people, including farmers from more than a 12-county area of southern and western Minnesota, packed inside the Worthington Fire Hall Thursday morning to ask questions and voice concerns about Gov. Mark Dayton’s proposal seeking to require 50-foot buffer strips along all lakes, rivers and streams across the state.
Arriving a few minutes behind schedule to a standing-room-only audience, Dayton acknowledged immediately that there will be disagreements and everyone is entitled to an opinion. He listened to question after question and occasionally offered responses on his bipartisan bill (HF1534/SF1537) for nearly two hours.
Dayton’s proposal seeks to create an additional 125,000 acres of water quality buffer strips statewide, and he wants to see the initiative under way before his term expires in another three and a half years.
The idea for added buffers came from the governor’s first-ever Minnesota Pheasant Summit late last year. Since then, it has evolved to focus not only on additional habitat and space for pollinators, but also on improving water quality.
Referring to recent information from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency on southwest Minnesota’s poor water quality that has made lakes unfit for fishing or swimming, Dayton said it is time to act.
For the most part, farmers in the room agreed that farming practices need to change - and they have changed. Fewer chemicals are being put on the land, and interest in conservation practices is on the rise. The last thing farmers want to see happen is their fertilizers, weed killers and top soil wash into ditch systems, waterways, streams and lakes - and that was just one of the messages presented to Dayton.
A New Ulm-area farmer was the first to speak up, saying that of the 55 million acres in Minnesota, the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) manages more than 5 million acres, and 27 million acres is in production agriculture.
“I foresee this as a land grab,” the man said. “My ancestors settled in southern Minnesota in 1858. They removed the Native Americans from this property to gain access to it, and now I look at our government moving us off of our land.”
He said the governor’s proposal, based on the number of acres that will be put into buffers, will remove the equivalent of 360 farm families from the land.
“Every time you lose a little bit, it hurts you in the back pocket,” he added.
“We’re not trying to take your land away, but when it comes to runoff and stuff going into the water, that’s a different story,” Dayton responded. “If everything were good out there, there’d be no reason to get involved with it.”
He then turned the table on the crowd, asking for solutions to clean up Minnesota’s waters.
Stuart Frazeur, owner of a tiling company in Canby, spoke of a drainage system installed by Canby where water flow can be turned off.
“I’m excited about agriculture because I see the possibilities we have for a better Minnesota,” Frazeur said. “We’re working with a planet that erodes. I understand that we have problems.”
Several people pointed out Thursday that agriculture isn’t the only one attributing to southwest Minnesota’s poor water quality.
Jackson County farmer Rachel Daberkow raised concerns about pollution from sources other than agricultural land. Having grown up on a farm near a lake, she said she wants to teach her son how to swim and fish, “but there are residential areas that don’t have nutrient management plans in place.”
“There are still municipalities that dump sewage into our waterways,” she said, then asked if the governor planned to bring stakeholders together to discuss the buffer strip proposal further.
“We’re having two sessions today (the second was in Austin) and another one next week to get a sense of where people are,” Dayton replied. “That’s a sense of our democracy - a chance for people to be heard.
“My goal is to make progress to clean up waters in Minnesota. It’s not from one source, it’s not from one industry,” Dayton said, adding that he plans to meet with legislative leaders next week. “I’m not going to be able to ram anything down 201 legislators’ throats - I don’t want to. I want to work something out that’s fair to everybody.”
Several farmers in attendance requested Dayton to use sound science and research before requiring 50-foot buffers. Some said buffers alone won’t improve water quality. Others told Dayton his proposal would have received more support if he’d gathered input from organizations such as the Minnesota Corn Growers Association (MCGA), Minnesota Soybean Growers Association (MSGA), Minnesota Farm Bureau and other groups.
“If you’re leading us in a direction, that’s fine. If you’d said 20 feet (for buffers), we could have justified it. If you’re leading us for a legacy, I don’t care to talk to you,” said Gerald Tumbleson, a Martin County farmer and member of the MCGA.
Bill Gordon, a rural Worthington farmer who serves on county, state and national soybean boards, asked the governor not to do a “rubber stamp” proposal on buffer strips.
“We need to work with people who mow their grass right up to the side of the lake,” Gordon said. “Let’s work together and create different proposals - maybe do more riprap of streams. Let’s not just do a rubber stamp.”
“I’ll back off of a 50-foot buffer strip if there is something better,” Dayton responded. “The situation is urgent. The fact is that the water in this area is unsafe for fish, for wildlife, for humans. We’re not trying to put big government’s foot down on anyone’s head.”
When some in the audience asked about the governor’s proposed timeline to require buffer strips, he said he’d consider it progress if something is being done.
“At least we’ve got everybody here concerned about it - that’s a step in the right direction,” he said.
Dayton found support for his buffer strip initiative from several farmers, but it came with cautious optimism.
“I support the idea of buffer strips, but it is more complicated than that,” said Jerry Perkins, who farms north of Worthington and has planted cover crops for the past several years. “I think the amount of time the land is exposed to the elements is a big issue. I think if we just do one thing, we’re going to be disappointed with what happens with water quality.”
Perkins encouraged the governor to consider cover crops, residue and infiltration rates, in addition to more buffer strips.
Dave Vander Kooi, who farms and operates a dairy south of Worthington, said he was impressed with what the governor said, but he asked that farmers be able to work with their local Soil and Water Conservation District and Natural Resources Conservation Service people to do what’s best.
“I think we need to change,” Vander Kooi said. “I think the right way is buffers - where they are needed. I would hate to see 50-foot buffers everywhere. In some places, absolutely.”
Minnesota DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said there is a provision in the current bill that will allow farmers to forego the standard 50-foot buffer if they get a custom plan from their local SWCD office.
“There are some alternative practices that could be used,” Landwehr said.
Rural Wabasso farmer Paul Sobocinski, speaking on behalf of the Land Stewardship Project, thanked Dayton for his “bold leadership” on the issue of buffer strips.
“Our organization accepts your challenge … and we support your buffer initiative,” Sobocinski said. “It raises a lot of questions about what we can do for land stewardship. As farmers, we’ve got to realize that we have to do something.”
Whether farmers support or oppose Dayton’s initiative, one of the biggest questions that remains unanswered is how it will be funded.
Jackson County Commissioner Dave Henkels said with the 108 miles of open county ditches in Jackson County, farmers would lose about 1,500 acres just along the ditch systems. That doesn’t include land along the county’s lakes, rivers and streams.
“I think your program would go through as is, if you just fund it,” Henkels said. “You say clean water is for the public, then the public needs to pay for it.”
Matt Widboom, a rural Worthington farmer and Nobles County commissioner, asked the governor to define the goal of improving water quality.
“I recognize that you want accomplishments, but what’s our goal - to what it was 80 years ago? 100 years ago?” Widboom asked. “Have a definable goal - and realistic - instead of ... ‘We want better water quality.’”
Dist. 22 Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne, saved his response on the governor’s proposal until the end of the meeting, saying that one of the take-aways from the discussion is that there isn’t one answer to the problem.
“We have a variety of programs out there, and they really do work,” Weber said. “The reality of this proposal is it put everybody on defense right away.”
Yet, Weber said there is a willingness for stakeholders to gather, sit down and discuss it further. He encouraged Dayton to gather representatives from farm, drainage and conservation organizations to discuss what is available now and how something more could be implemented.
Weber also asked Dayton to “say these bills are dead for this year” and bring the groups to the table for discussion.
“I think you will be pleasantly surprised with the cooperation and willingness … in advancing the goal that you have,” Weber added.
Dayton to seek more funds for Lewis & Clark
During Thursday’s gathering in Worthington, Dayton announced that he will seek $39 million in state bonding funds this session to complete the Lewis & Clark Regional Water project to Worthington. The proposal is part of a more than $800 million bonding bill he will propose to legislators next week.
Dayton said a formal announcement on his bonding bill proposal will be announced early next week.