In central Minnesota, potatoes are pushing out forest land

Some see the trend as a threat to water quality and wildlife.

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Agriculture is eating into central Minnesota’s forests so aggressively that state regulators and a prominent legislator are sounding the alarm about threats to wildlife habitat and a large, sensitive aquifer that stretches below parts of four counties.

The latest case is a 1,500-acre project in Cass County, which triggered a contentious legislative hearing last month over the owner’s plans to grow potatoes for McDonald’s and other customers on land that was covered with trees just 10 years ago.

In recent years, 5,000 to 6,000 acres of pine forests in Cass, Wadena and neighboring counties have been cleared for chemically intensive row-crop agriculture, and state officials say nearly 100 square miles of timber land now owned by Potlatch Corp. is at risk as the company divests itself of commercial forests in Minnesota.

Similar tensions could face the entire state faces as it copes with persistent water contamination and overuse, regulators say. The risk is especially worrisome along the border between traditional farm lands and the forested areas in central Minnesota, where contaminants can percolate straight through sandy soils into groundwater, and from there to trout streams and popular lakes.

Several local communities already face huge costs to taxpayers in their struggle to find drinking water that is not contaminated with agricultural fertilizer.

“Groundwater and drinking water have not been issues until recently,” said Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, chair of the House committee that held hearings this month. “But that’s the public conversation I want to have.”

R.D. Offutt’s project in Cass County is a case that shows what’s at stake and the powerful forces driving land conversion. It also has focused the legislature’s attention on an increasingly difficult question on the environmental impacts: Who should pay?

Offutt, based in Fargo, is the nation’s largest potato grower and a supplier to McDonald’s and other food companies. The Freshwater Society, a Minnesota environmental group, found in a recent analysis that Offutt is the largest single irrigator in the state, with rights to pump up to 12 billion gallons of water per year on 30,000 acres.

Recently, it acquired 1,459 acres of cleared commercial forest land from Potlatch, pulled out the stumps, drilled four deep wells and installed high-capacity pumps.

“I was speechless,” said Jeff Broberg, a geologist who sits on a legislative advisory committee and saw the work underway this summer while on a site visit. On one side of the road was an aspen forest full of birds and blueberries, he said. On the other, he said, “the habitat destruction was complete. It might as well have been pavement after that.”

Rising land prices

At the October hearing, Keith McGovern, an Offutt manager, said the company does not intend to increase its potato production. Offutt bought the land so it could improve crop rotation on other fields — which can be better for the soil and the environment — without reducing its overall potato supply to a plant it co-owns in Park Rapids.

But Cass County Land Manager Joshua Stevenson said the strategy still reflects daunting agricultural economics that conflict with forest conservation. “We know what they are paying,” he said. “It’s way above anything we’ve ever paid for forested land.”

Offutt paid about $2,500 per acre, while the county usually pays roughly $1,500, he said.

“How did you get to a point where it’s cheaper to buy forested land at $2,500 an acre, and spend hundreds of thousands to clear it and drill wells?” Stevenson asked. The answer, he said, is that soaring prices for corn and soybeans have made it harder for Offutt to rent land from farmers.

“It’s cheaper for a company like [Offutt] to bulldoze trees,” Stevenson said. “A lot of this is coming down to [public subsidies] for corn and ethanol.”

That’s partly true, a company official said, but Offutt also has fewer options for land because potatoes require the sandy soil so well known in central Minnesota.

The Pineland Sands Forestland covers 1,000 square miles that are largely unpopulated but widely used for hunting, fishing and recreation. It’s also above part of the Pineland Sands Aquifer, which supplies nearby lakes, streams and rivers and is still pretty much uncontaminated, said state environmental officials.

  • Trees

    potatoes

    Minnesota timber land for sale

    McDonald’s potato supplier needs land

    North-central aquifer is clean but sensitive

    Access to aquifer and sandy soils are ideal for potatoes

    Trees filter groundwater flows that feed streams, lakes

    Fertilizer for crops in sandy soils can contaminate water

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