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Minnesota farmland buffer enforcement may not be needed

Executive Director John Janschke of the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources said on Monday, Oct. 30, 2017, that 95 percent of properties in the state comply with state buffer laws to protect water. Don Davis / Forum News Service

ST. PAUL—Minnesota farmers should not worry about buffer police.

The key Minnesota lawmaker in crafting a law requiring plant buffers between farmland and water says he does not think authorities will slap fines on farmers who break the buffer law.

"At the end of the day, it will not require enforcement," Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, said Monday, Oct. 30, as state officials announced a 95 percent statewide compliance rate.

Even with lingering complaints about the buffer requirement,"for the most part, farmers are dealing with it," Torkelson said.

Executive Director John Jaschke of the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources said penalties for not following the law could take one of two routes: a county attorney charging the landowner with a misdemeanor crime or a civil penalty of up to $500 per violation. The rate of following the law varies widely across Minnesota, with heavily agricultural counties in the west and south showing the lowest compliance rates.

Marshall, Grant, Rock and Watonwan counties have less than 70 percent of land next to streams in compliance, Janschke's agency reported Monday, two days ahead of the law's first major deadline. Many of the other crop-heavy counties have 70 to 79 percent compliance.

Jaschke said the fact that the counties have a lot of crops is one reason some farmers may miss the Wednesday, Nov. 1, deadline for installing buffers next to rivers, streams and some other bodies of water. This year's harvest is running late, he said.

Some farmers are also waiting for technical or financial assistance before building buffers, he said. Farmers in any of those situation may receive permission to delay complying with the buffer law until next year.

Jaschke said 1,800 farmers have received permission to miss this week's deadline.

Torkelson, in a telephone interview as he was harvesting corn, confirmed that his southern Minnesota's crops are late this year. That delayed him getting started on a federal program that would provide buffers.

The lawmaker said a high percentage of streamside land had buffers even before this week's deadline.

Torkelson got involved in helping write the 2015 legislation after Dayton upset farmers by announcing his desire to require buffers, even without much conversation with farmers. The legislator worked to make the bill more acceptable to his rural constituents.

While Torkelson said he thinks grass buffers are good for the state's water, he said there will be no immediate water quality improvement.

Dayton and Pollution Control Commissioner John Linc Stine said southwest Minnesota, with some of the highest percentage of land in crops, is where water is the most polluted and in need of buffers. But that also is where the lowest buffer compliance is found.

Water in southwestern Minnesota has been declared unsafe for swimming and in many cases fish caught there are not safe to eat.

Stine said buffers are not a cure-all, but "are predictive of water quality." He said that plant buffers can greatly reduce the amount of phosphorus and sediment that flows from cropland into water.

One of farmers' complains is that seeding land next to a stream with grass takes land out of crop production. They say it is not fair that the state requires buffers but doesn't pay farmers to give up money they otherwise can make from the land.

Torkelson said money available for farmers varies "pretty dramatically" depending on the county. And while federal provisions such as the Conservation Reserve Program can pay for the work, he added, "it gets pretty complex."

Jaschke's agency has drawn up a list of alternative practices to planting plant buffers that can work for some farmers and still meet the law.

Lawmakers approved the original buffer law in 2015 and revised it a year later in response to farmer complaints.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.