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Buffer debate continues in Minnesota farm country to protect waters

Bruce Tiffany farms just outside Redwood Falls talks Aug. 4, about grass buffers that separate his corn fields from a county ditch. (FORUM NEWS SERVICE)

REDWOOD FALLS — Bruce Tiffany stood along a county ditch, corn well over shoulder high on each side.

It was a clear summer late afternoon, with a hot breeze blowing, and Tiffany pointed to the 60 feet of grass separating the ditch from his corn field.

“Every generation has to leave something for the next to work with,” Tiffany said of why he devotes so much land to protecting water from cropland runoff.

Tiffany said he uses three criteria before making decisions, such as installing those grass buffers, about his farm just south of Redwood Falls:

— “I look first of all at what makes sense now economically. ... You have to generate an income in order to be here.”

— “Would the people (who owned the land) before me be proud of the decisions I made?”

— “And would the people after me be proud of the decisions I made?”

With those principles, Tiffany’s decisions lean toward good conservation techniques, which he said also fits other farmers’ attitudes.

His land could be the ideal that Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton had in mind when he proposed requiring landowners to plant buffers next to nearly all water in the state.

In early 2015, Dayton used a pheasant hunters’ summit to announce that he wanted to require a 50-foot buffer around cropland.

Three months later, after farmers pushed back on the plan, Dayton told a news conference: “Most farmers, I think, are good stewards, but there are some out there who I guess don’t share that view, and what they’re doing, unfortunately, is contaminating water that everybody uses, that everybody needs to use.”

Dayton said farmers should “look into their souls” about pollution their cropland causes.

That did not set well with farmers.

“To be told in public ... that farmers need to examine their soul ... you can’t put that horse back in the barn once you have your governor saying that,” Tiffany said, adding that had Dayton worked with farm groups before announcing the buffer plan things might have gone smoother.

The Legislature passed a law requiring buffers in 2015 and updated it in 2016.

By Nov. 1, 2017, buffers 50 feet wide on average, with a minimum of 30 feet, must be in place around public waters, such as rivers. A year later, buffers at least 16.5 feet wide must be along public ditches.

Some farmers remain opposed to the law, and many have questions.

During a legislative forum in Olivia earlier this year, Jim Zenk of Olivia said he believes a five-foot buffer would achieve the same water quality benefits, and asked if the 16.5-foot width was really aimed at providing wildlife habitat.

“Is this what it’s really about?” Zenk asked.

Joseph Sullivan of Franklin told the legislators that the requirement has the potential of taking 3,000 acres out of production in the county at a value of $8,000 per acre for tillable land.

He challenged the once-size-fits-all requirement, saying it would be more effective to strategically install buffers.

“Let’s do it where it has impact,’’ Sullivan said.

Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr said that up to 100,000 acres statewide may need to be buffered in the next couple of years.

Executive Director Warren Formo of the Minnesota Agriculture Water Resources Coalition said that about 80 percent of land required to have buffers already has them. Most, like on Tiffany’s farm, were in place long before the law passed.

Tiffany and Formo said news stories over the years blaming farmers for polluting waters convinced them to install buffers.

“Our environmental impact is significantly less,” Tiffany said.

Weed killer, for instance, now is measured down to a fraction of an ounce per acre, he said, and computers make it hard to over apply chemicals.

“The sloppy farmers went out of business a long time ago,” Tiffany said.

The buffer law includes some funds to help farmers afford to install buffers.

If a farmer seeds a buffer himself, it typically costs $100 an acre, twice that if a farmer hires someone to do the work.

The federal Conservation Reserve Program, which pays landowners to keep environmentally sensitive land out of crop production, could help farmers afford buffers. And Minnesota has asked federal officials to allow the state into an advanced CRP program that could provide more money.

Even after this year’s legislative repair work on the buffer law, things still are not going smoothly. Buffers dominated a recent water forum at Farmfest, an agriculture show a dozen miles from Tiffany’s farm.

“It seems like the mapping portion of this is the most controversial,” said Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, who authored the buffer bill so farmers like him would have a say in the law.

Maps Landwehr’s agency produced, made from paper maps from years ago, have raised lots of questions. Many farmers say they are inaccurate and out of date.

Farmers who think maps are wrong are directed to local soil and water conservation districts, which are to enforce the state buffer law.

“These maps are far from perfect,” Torkelson said of the 40-year-old documents. “They need correction.”

He urged patience. “This is an ongoing initiative. They story is still being written.”

Buffers are not the only way to prevent pollutants, such as farm chemicals, from getting into Minnesota’s water. Actions other than buffers are available to landowners, if they receive local soil and water officials’ approval.

Landwehr said the ditches, streams, rivers and other water that need protecting are all over the state, not just in the farm-heavy parts of Minnesota. But it is farmers who are most vocal on the topic.

“Well thought-out regulations are acceptable,” Tiffany said. “Regulations without a well thought out goal are hard to deal with because if it is not clear what the goal is ... it is hard to wrap your head around it and embrace it.”

Reporter Tom Cherveny contributed to this story.

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