Last Sunday I published on these pages a column about farmland drainage and specifically about pattern tiling, which has become commonplace throughout Minnesota in recent decades to the detriment, I said, of many rivers, lakes and lands.
I also wrote that these and other challenges can’t be met effectively in Minnesota because the state’s conservation delivery model is ineffectual, in part because top staff of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the Board of Water and Soil Resources (and by implication, the Pollution Control Agency) toil — some reluctantly, others less so — in the shadows of overlording politicians.
Unless this model is changed, I said, Minnesota’s natural resources will continue to degrade. Better, I said, to establish in law — as many other states have — a Citizens Conservation Commission of perhaps seven members, serving rotating terms and representing all regions of the state, to set conservation policy and to run interference for its implementation.
I didn’t ask for readers to write to me in response to the column. But many did, which is indicative, I believe, of the deep concern many here share for the state’s lands and waters and for the life forms — human, plant, animal — they support.
Below is a cross-section of the letters. Each has been edited for length.
Randy Schmiesing, Chokio, Minn.: I was the Stevens County 2012 Outstanding Conservationist. I believe this: “I am renting the land from the children of the future and I am responsible to make the land better for the next generation.’’ Yet my attempts to restore wetlands on my land have been met with considerable resistance by my local watershed district. Believe me, improving land by restoring wetlands is harder than you think. Come to my farm and I’ll show you personally what is going on with water management in western Minnesota.
Larry A. Stone, Elkader, Iowa: Tell Minnesotans to look across their southern border to see what the dominance of industrial agriculture has done to the Iowa environment. But don’t stand too close to the border if the wind is from the south, wafting up the “smell of money” from CAFOs — concentrated animal feeding operations!
Lonni McCauley, Coon Rapids: Your column was the first time I actually saw someone say out loud what many of us clean water advocates have known for some time. Two years ago, women from 65 League of Women Voters chapters gathered from Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin to add our voices to the problem of pollution in the Mississippi River. Our mission is educating residents about the problem of excessive nitrates in water. I grew up on a farm and have come to believe tiling is a major contributor to this problem.
Rand Middleton, Willmar, Minn.: Our daughter has a summer place on a shallow lake in northwest Kandiyohi County. Three agriculture ditches drain into it, and by midsummer the water is pea green. We need more wetlands desperately.
Andy Thorson, Waverly, Minn.: I farm and I tile. Is tiling regulated as you would like? No. Is it regulated more than I wish? Yes. I believe you do not understand how tiling works. By allowing water to filter through the soil and slowly drain during dry periods, the soil can act as more of a sponge during heavy rain events, leading to less runoff. I would drink the water coming out of a tile system on our farm all day long, and have many times. It is with good reason our Legislature has not made tile the devil you have in your mind.
Tom Salkowski, Buffalo, Minn.: After years of experience as a land-use planner in rural Minnesota, I agree with you about the current state of the DNR and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. I started working for Dakota County in 1977 and moved to Wright County in 1979 where I was planning and zoning administrator for more than 30 years.
During that time, I sadly witnessed the slow but steady erosion of both the DNR and PCA from proud advocates of natural resources, conservation and environmental protection to fearful bureaucracies beholden to powerful legislators who care not about science or the good of the resource. It has been very sad to witness, especially because I originally moved to Minnesota partly because of its reputation for outdoors activity and environmental protection.
Luckily, there are many saintly, dedicated people who work for both agencies, but I fear those who are willing to speak truth to power are discouraged rather than promoted in today’s world.
Justin Dagen of Dagen Heritage Farms in Karlstad, Minn.: Farm tiling is very beneficial for soil health as well as an entire watershed. With tile, excessive soil moisture is slowly drained off at a rate of approximately a quarter-inch per day. I can’t speak for the entire state, but the governing water authority is in my area knows exactly how many acres have been tiled. Contact me and I will help you with the basic science of how pattern tiling works.
Jim Boak, equipment and crop technology specialist for The Salford Group in Salford, Ontario: There is no mystery about how we in agriculture ended up being major polluters without trying. Fifty and 60 years ago, 100- and 200-acre farms were the norm. Fields were fenced in parcels of 5 to 20 acres, and portions of each farm were woodlots or wetlands. Multiple plant species were cropped in rotation, small numbers of livestock were found on almost every farm, cereals were grown for bedding and feed, and cover crops were grown and utilized as feed. Additionally, livestock manure was not concentrated in large amounts to small areas, and less than 20 percent of the total farm grew row crops, with very few inputs that included the suffix icides.
As a result, our soils were healthy, and water did not have a straight run to anywhere. There was always a fence or crop or lane blocking its path. We had no erosion and we drank water straight from the streams, rivers and lakes in my neighborhood with no fear of illness.
But economics caused us to evolve into food/feed/fuel production factories. If you look back at all costs vs. income in 1960, commodity prices today should be three to five times higher than they are. When profit margins in any business erode, that business cuts corners to stay profitable. Farms are no different. In agriculture, this meant making fences disappear along with wetlands and woodlots. Operations were simplified to gain efficiency, meaning the number of species found on a farm had to be reduced. Hay and pasture land is nearly extinct today. Large volumes of livestock manure are concentrated in small areas. And 10-acre fields have become 100 and 200 acres. In fact, every production practice that protected the environment 60 years ago has been eliminated to meet the financial demands that have been imposed on the primary food producer. Soil health has declined rapidly and input costs have risen in direct relation to the loss of soil health.
What to do? Turn back the hands of time? Not likely. But there are efficient ways to mimic the way we once farmed.
• Cover crop everything.
• Inter-seed a companion crop into established row crops
• Solid seed as many crops as possible.
• Provide interest-free loans and strategic grants to have all agricultural lands tile drained and equipped with flow management controls and storage basins.
• Provide interest-free loans and grants for fencing of farm land. Grants to municipalities. Loans to primary producers.
We have the knowledge, ability and resources to be regenerative in farming. But the farm community cannot do it alone. We were financially forced into row crop production, which is the chief reason we have water pollution and the main reason we have farm-level economic stress. We have been ingrained for 50 years to believe that any plant growing in a row crop that was not something we planted is a yield-robbing weed. We know now we can grow several species together if we choose the right species planted at the right time.
Most crops don’t want to grow in rows. Rows are what we want. A simple change from rows to solid seeded crops has the potential to reverse agriculture’s impact on soil health and on the environment with a positive economic impact at the primary producer level. But for meaningful environmental change to happen we need support and encouragement from both outside and inside [agriculture]. … Change requires capital.
I can see the future. If we don’t act quickly to protect the financial security of the family farm model we will earn for ourselves a food, feed and fuel supply model that is owned lock, stock and barrel, from farm gate to dinner plate, by four or five input supply companies.
Brad Durick, Grand Forks, N.D.: Farm tiling problems are not just in Minnesota. In 2011, North Dakota deregulated drain tile and allowed it to be put in at will. I sent a letter of opposition to my legislators and was told to stay quiet because we can’t upset farmers. Now if there is a huge rain you can see the Red River go up feet in just a couple of hours. There are spots where the bank will just blow out because the ditches can’t hold the volume of water. All of the things you listed are happening and this makes being a fishing guide on the river, which I am, more and more difficult. But when my annual income is about the same as the cost of a set of tractor tires, I guess I don’t have a say.
Bruce Vruwink, Lake Lillian, Minn.: I own and manage agriculture land in rural Minnesota. I have never supported “pattern tiling,” although I have and will continue to install “conventional” tiling. I commend you for your stance. However, I see it as a Not In My Back Yard approach. The salt used on Minnesota roads is as great a threat to our environment and Mississippi River system as tiling is. But nobody wants to champion the end of salt.
Sonny Freyholtz, Hewitt, Minn: I am a farmer and 100 percent no-till, not organic. Our farm is a grass-based beef operation. The problem is the infiltration rate of water on farm ground. Modern farming methods have decreased infiltration rates to a fraction of that of grasslands. The use of cover crops and residue will greatly increase infiltration rates in a few years. As farms get larger, this problem will only increase as equipment is larger and heavier, leading to more compaction.
Dan S., Brookings, S.D.: The arrogance and denial that farm-drainage advocates spew are the main reason Minnesota waters are in trouble. Both confirm your statements about the political environment that exists in your state. One cannot dare challenge farmers without facing scorn and ridicule. They say they have it tough. Perhaps they should have some balance in the landscape and corn wouldn’t be $2.50 a bushel. I am tired of this group and they are ruining South Dakota, too.
Warren Formo, executive director for the Minnesota Agriculture Water Resource Center in Eagan: Pattern tiling allows drainage to be accomplished with less environmental impact when compared to drainage systems of the early 1900s. Tile lines are laid out to follow field contours, and when properly arranged and installed they contribute to soil health. Many of the most productive soils in the Midwest do not have the ability to drain naturally, starving the microorganisms in the soil of oxygen. This in turn affects nutrient cycling in the soil and can reduce crop productivity, which is important in returning organic matter to the soil to continue the cycle. Yields in Minnesota continue to set records due to many factors including better genetics, improved nutrient application practices, and improved drainage design that contributes to improved soil health.
Clark Meyer, Elysian, Minn.: In the last four or five years, I have contacted Pheasants Forever, Ducks Unlimited and the Minnesota Waterfowl Association many times about becoming more politically active. Their reactions have been, in essence, “We’re for habitat and wildlife and not interested in becoming political.” While they say this, Big Ag and Big Business pull sportsmen’s rights out from under them. My lone voice has no impact.
Lee Spence, Prior Lake: I have a place in western Minnesota on Lake Shetek. I know of at least three fields that drain directly into the lake and I’m sure there are many more. The homes around the lake were forced to hook up to a sewer system that we are paying for, in addition to a monthly fee. Upshot: We pay while fields are drained directly into the lake. Here’s what the DNR says about Lake Shetek: “Not always suitable for swimming and wading due to low clarity or excessive algae caused by the presence of nutrients such as phosphorus in the water.” Who takes the brunt of government being incapable of managing anything? We do.
Bill Bond, executive director for the Minnesota Crop Production Retailers in Maple Grove: The folks in agriculture are the backbone of hunting in Minnesota. You really slapped us in the face. Lobbing hand grenades may be entertaining. But some readers will actually think you know what you are writing about. (These are my opinions and not necessarily those of the board or members of the Minnesota Crop Production Retailers.)
Dan Wilm, Pequot Lakes, Minn.: Your column was spot on: No DNR commissioner has been allowed to use the “bully pulpit” since Rudy Perpich’s last term, when Joe Alexander did and was effective. I’ve been suggesting they do so for years. But no one does, and I think it’s by design.
Roger McNear, Cambridge: As an alumnus of a small southwest Minnesota high school (Heron Lake), and part owner of a duck camp on Swan Lake in Nicollet County, I see the consequences of unregulated tiling. Minnesota has lost 90 percent of its wetlands through poorly managed agricultural policies. The lack of foresight and oversight of existing laws and resources flies in direct conflict to the waters and lands they purport to protect.
Bruce Petterson, Dassel: I live in Meeker County, just north of Hutchinson. I’ve been taking pictures of tiling and drainage and preaching to anyone who would listen on its negative effects since I first saw it. Even hilltops are being pattern tiled! Where does all the water go? Into ditches, via a huge sump pump, and then to the Red, Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers.