EDGERTON, Minn – When state pollution officials announced in April that nearly all rivers and streams in this farming region are unsafe for swimming and fishing, newspaper editor Jill Fennema huddled with a colleague and briefly contemplated writing a story.
Yes, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency was declaring an important benchmark in its long study of toxic agricultural runoff into the state’s lakes and rivers. But other news was paramount, including the good fortunes of the Flying Dutchmen girls’ high school softball team.
“We never did do an article,” Fennema said. “Yeah, it’s too bad that we can’t swim … we live in an agricultural area and that’s just the way it is.”
Like a lot of small towns across Minnesota’s corn and soybean belt, this tight-knit Dutch enclave in Pipestone County is coping with the dilemma of water polluted by farm chemicals. Some nearby creeks are unsafe for wading, many streams are losing aquatic life, and the shallow aquifers that provide people their drinking water show heightened levels of nitrates from fertilizer. Since 2002, Edgerton itself has spent more than $418,000 on a treatment plant to meet the federal health standard for drinking water.
Yet, no matter how obvious the connection, no one in this community of 1,200 wants to point fingers at area farmers. Though farms are fewer and bigger today, agriculture still drives the local economy — providing spinoff jobs, supporting Main Street businesses and keeping area schools and churches brimming. Across Minnesota, dozens of communities with tainted water are struggling with the same quandary where farming has become both a major polluter and a financial anchor.
“We have to accommodate the ag community … or Edgerton won’t be here,” said City Clerk Ross Brands, who oversees surprisingly robust, local development.
With ongoing treatment, Edgerton’s water has become safe to drink under state and federal standards. Nitrates are tightly regulated because excessive levels in drinking water reduce the body’s ability to carry oxygen to vital tissues, which can be deadly for babies. And, according to the state Health Department, water showing high nitrate levels may also be tainted by pesticides and other ag contaminants.
Fennema said her own family, which has been hit by cancer, maintains an additional water filtration system at home just to be on the safe side. She said many residents take similar precautions or drink bottled water, but no one complains.
“It’s just something you think about,” she said.
Don’t tell us how to farm
Brothers Ross and Reed Van Hulzen, who grow corn and soybeans on 6,000 acres near Edgerton in partnership with their father and grandfather, said area farmers don’t feel much pressure from townspeople on environmental issues. But they are painfully aware of state regulators’ scrutiny.
“We get a lot more pressure from Minneapolis than we do locally,” Ross Van Hulzen said.
The Van Hulzens recently spent $180,000 seeking state approval for a well to irrigate their fields. But the Department of Natural Resources rejected the plan, saying the well might adversely draw down water in a rare wetland that filters excess nutrients out of the water and provides wildlife habitat.
The brothers plant corn 48 rows at a time with the latest John Deere technology and are on a first-name basis with their state senator.
They strongly opposed Gov. Mark Dayton’s proposal to require that farmers install “buffer strips,” rows of permanent vegetation along fields to protect surface water from chemicals and excess nutrients. The strips would cause farmers like the Van Hulzens to lose productive cropland at their own considerable expense, they said.
Reed Van Hulzen said he resents the “Cities” telling farmers what to do because urban attitudes about agriculture are disconnected from reality.
The cost and complexity of complying with regulations is a big reason farms are consolidating, he said.
That’s not to say local farmers are callous about the region’s clean water challenge, the brothers said. Many are experimenting with practices to control excess nutrients, including a growing trend of applying nitrogen in smaller amounts twice a year, instead of all at once, they said. It’s a proven conservation method that also feeds crops more efficiently.
Even so, enthusiasm for conservation practices seems scarce. Participation has been light in a new $5 million project aimed at curbing the leaching of farm chemicals into aquifers in Pipestone, Rock and Nobles counties, according to Kyle Krier, administrator of the local Soil and Water Conservation District. The program pays farmers by the acre for using nitrate inhibitors, which delay the conversion of ammonium in fertilizer to nitrate, but few have enrolled, he said.
Krier said Edgerton hasn’t asked his agency for much help, even though it faces a common set of challenges for the region: nitrogen-dependent corn planted on permeable soil above shallow aquifers.
“The whole area is highly vulnerable,” Krier said.
An experiment fails
This corner of the state near Iowa and South Dakota has become a case study in the linkage between farming and nitrate levels in drinking water.
In the 1980s, nitrates in Edgerton’s only viable drinking water source measured as high as 16 parts per million, far above the 10 parts per million federal health standard, according to the 2015 Minnesota Drinking Water Annual Report. When corn prices sagged in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Health Department and the city worked with growers in a sensitive area around the town’s wellhead to modify fertilizer use. As part of the effort, a set of crucial acres near the wellhead was enrolled in a federal farm program that paid farmers to stop producing crops.
“As management measures took hold, nitrate levels in source water declined by approximately 50 percent,” the report said.
But when corn prices spiked in 2005, the chance to make money trumped the conservation incentives, according to the Health Department’s report. Corn went into high production, and nitrate levels in groundwater rapidly increased, “along with the financial burden of treatment plant operation,” the report said.
God, family, cows
Long known as the devout and frugal “Dutch Capital of Southwestern Minnesota,” Edgerton last year changed its motto to “Thriving Families; Building the Future.” In the last census, Edgerton was one of the few places in Pipestone County to show a population increase, albeit modest.
Some cows still graze within the city’s manicured limits, but the private and public schools are expanding, a new, 56-site housing development is in the works, two health clinics have expressed interest in moving here and new businesses must vie for space on a flourishing main street that includes a classic bakery and butcher shop.
Still, the community clings to its hallowed tradition of prayer, family time and rest on Sundays.
Keith Buckridge, hired last year as public school superintendent, said school board members weren’t joking when they advised him not to work on Sunday, even around his house. If Sunday was the only time available to fix something critical at home, they advised, “see that the garage door is closed.”
“God is first, family second and everything else follows,” Buckridge said.
And farmers, while adapting to the imperatives of modern agriculture, still play a crucial role in the community. Row-crop production is being consolidated by well-capitalized operators like the Van Hulzens who till thousands of acres. And the area’s rolling hills are increasingly dotted with large, multimillion-dollar hog and dairy cow confinements — some located no more than a mile away from City Hall.
Ross Brands, the city manager, still balks at the suggestion that Edgerton’s drinking water contamination is entirely tied to agriculture. The city built its nitrate removal system in 2002, using a low-interest loan from the Health Department that carries yearly debt payments of about $27,500, then upgraded it with a state grant in 2012.
Over 20 years, the cost per resident will be about $350.
“We’ve got safe water to drink,” Brands said. “I don’t think anybody points fingers at the ag community to say, ‘Hey, you are costing us more money.’ ”