Buffer strips are a hot topic of conversation in Minnesota agriculture. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) defines buffer strips as “small areas or strips of land in permanent vegetation, designed to intercept pollutions and manage other environmental concerns.”
A recent push by Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton and other legislators seeks to push all buffer strips along waterways in Minnesota to a uniform 50 feet in length. Farmers are fighting back against what they call a ‘one size fits all’ proposal.
A recently introduced bill before the Minnesota Legislature would require farmers to install a 50-foot buffer strip of permanent vegetation between their fields and adjacent bodies of water. The strips work to help filter phosphates, nitrates, and sediment from running off the fields and into any nearby water, thereby helping to improve water quality.
On Friday, April 3, Governor Dayton and other officials met with Austin area farmers to discuss the proposal. The Austin Daily Herald quoted Mark Novak, who farms near Wells, Minnesota, telling the Governor, “With 33 feet of buffers, very little water is going from my land into the ditch. You want me to add another 15 feet?”
Peterson said the Farmers Union clearly stated that there is a need for buffer strips during a recent board meeting. “Again, it greatly varies throughout the state, and one size does not fit all. We do want to work with state agencies to improve water quality, but we need a common sense approach.”
“It’s critical here that local officials and local control be exerted over some of the decisions that may be made in the countryside,” said Peterson. “We need to get an inventory and we need to find funding for making decisions on buffers. We need to work with local officials on that, and that’s what we’re recommending to the Legislature.”
State Representative Paul Anderson wrote a piece on the EchoPress.com website, quoting Howard Midje, a retired Minnesota state design engineer at the former State Conservation Service (what is now the National Resources Conservation Service). He quoted Midje as saying, “The Governor’s buffer strip requirement the largest land grab in state history.”
Midje said maintaining buffer strips and pheasant habitat, which the Governor (an avid pheasant hunter) wants to see more of, is not always workable. “Buffer strips need to be mowed and clipped several times in a season to keep the grass short and to keep trees from putting down roots. If grass is allowed to grow over two inches tall, it will simply bend over when water flows through it, and it loses its effectiveness at trapping sediment.”
Anderson said he doesn’t want what he referred to as a “Cookie cutter approach. We should be targeting high-impact areas, where buffers will do the most good. We should be doing it in a way that fairly compensates farmers for the loss of productive land.”
The KLGR radio website reported that originally, the Governor promoted this idea back in December as a way to improve pheasant habitat. The original proposal would turn over enforcement of the buffers to the DNR, and take it away from the Soil and Water Conservation Service, who have been enforcing the laws currently on the books. The idea of DNR enforcement on private lands was called “unacceptable” at a recent listening session at the Redwood Falls Community Center.
One Redwood-area farmer was quoted as saying, “This feels like nothing more than a land grab by the DNR. We already have water conservation buffer rules on the books. How about we do a better job of funding that, instead of spending money on a whole new initiative?”
Senator Gary Dahmes of Redwood Falls visited with KLGR Radio recently, and said he doesn’t support the bill for several reasons. “In 4 of the 6 counties I represent, we have 1,423 miles of dredged ditches. With a 50-foot buffer strip,that is 16,100 acres. If you take that number times the average sales price registered at the court house, that’s $114,000,000 in agricultural assets that we’re asking our farmers to set aside, without any way of making money off it.”
Dahmes wants to know why that much land should be taken out of food production. “We have to double our food supply by 2050 (because of rising population), and this works against that.
Bruce Peterson is the President of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, and farms near Northfield. He posed a question in a guest column on southernminn.com: “How many non-farm people even know farmers already use buffer strips?”
He speaks from experience. “I already use these practices on my farm near Northfield to protect several waterways that flow near my fields. Each of these practices is sized and designed specifically for their location in a way that maximizes water quality benefits.”
Peterson wants to know who is to blame for the knowledge gap?
“In my opinion, it’s farmers,” he said. “Farmers have not done a good job of telling their conservation story, and we’re losing the public perception battle because of it.”
After the recent meeting in Redwood Falls, Minnesota Farm Bureau President Kevin Paap encouraged farmers to speak up.
“We need to be the ones to improve the image of agriculture,” he said. “Don’t approach the issue defensively. Instead, educate the public. Show them what we are doing to maintain land and water quality.”
He said farmers know the long-term importance of protecting resources.
“Many of us are descendants of the people who built the farms we live on,” said Paap. “My own son lives in the house his great-Grandfather built. He sleeps in the same room his Grandfather was born in. We need to show that we know the importance of the land we’ve been given, and the importance of maintaining it for future generations.”