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Tour mixes western Minnesota farmers, Lake Pepin landowners

MONTEVIDEO -- The steady build up of sediment in Lake Pepin and the hypoxia or oxygen-depleted "dead zone'' in the Gulf of Mexico continue to get lots of attention, and are leading to increasing calls for environmental regulations on upstream farming practices.

Yet there are plenty of good things being done by farmers in the Minnesota River basin, and reason to believe that continuing to use a carrot in place of a stick can be the best way to keep things on the right track.

That's some of the thinking behind a recent "Friendship Tour'' that joined upstream farmers in the basin with downstream landowners and others in the Lake Pepin area.

"We built some friendships,'' Susie Carlin, assistant director of the Minnesota River board, told members of the basin organization at their meeting on Monday in Montevideo.

Carlin said the "Friendship Tour'' held Aug. 23-24 brought a variety of farmers from the Minnesota River basin to Lake Pepin as guests of those concerned about the sediment build up taking place there. The two-day event generated so much enthusiasm that the 20-plus participants are repeating the experience by touring two western Minnesota farms Sept. 29-30. Participating farmers were so supportive of the effort that they offered to take time from the harvest to make it possible, she noted.

The get-together is aimed at building dialogue between upstream and downstream people, and to provide some education. Carlin and others described the get-together as akin to a cultural exchange. Many downstream residents in the Lake Pepin area are uninformed about the practices and economic forces that are part and parcel of modern farming in western Minnesota.

The Minnesota River board worked with Warren Formo, representing the Minnesota Agriculture Water Resources Coalition, and Patrick Moore, Clean Up the River Environment, to bring farmers and environmentalists to the table.

Patrick Moore, director of CURE, said some urban-based environmental groups are calling for more regulation and expressing a desire to press for legal actions against upstream polluters. He believes that open dialogue and building trust and awareness can overcome the calls for confrontation. It could also build partnerships that can get things done, he said.

Carlin said that many of the Lake Pepin area participants have business experience. Once appraised of the economic realities that farmers face, there were plenty of "ah-ha'' moments when things clicked, she told the river board members.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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