For more than a decade, David Weissing has mowed and tended the ditch along Hwy. 14 where his family lives in Winona County, lopping off the heads of invasive plants such as thistle and wild parsnip because he doesn’t want chemicals sprayed there.
Like six other farmers in the region, he had a metal “Do Not Spray” sign posted to remind maintenance crews of that — until a Minnesota Department of Transportation crew yanked it without warning last month.
The no-spray agreements in that part of the state were being terminated, they told him. Now, MnDOT officials say that is not the case and blame the mix-up on muddled communication while it re-examines the program.
“It was sort of the cart before the horse,” said agency spokesman Michael Dougherty.
The sign-pulling is the latest conflict over the vital network of ditches crisscrossing Minnesota. Two years ago, MnDOT hosted a statewide effort involving more than a dozen groups trying to find middle ground on mowing and haying its ditches. How roadside vegetation is managed — both mowing and chemical use — is a major concern for competing interests: pheasant hunters, environmentalists concerned about growing native vegetation for pollinators, farmers wanting to mow for hay, organic farmers needing buffers and state and local governments trying to maintain safe roads.
MnDOT is re-evaluating its no-spray agreements following ongoing problems with landowners not maintaining ditches according to signed agreements, said Andrew Fischbach, a MnDOT maintenance superintendent in the agency’s southeast Minnesota district. Too many are letting their ditches grow wild and aren’t removing invasive and noxious weeds, he said.
Adding to the confusion, MnDOT’s regional office did not send out the usual no-spray agreements to farmers this spring; Fischbach blamed that on disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic. The agency is creating a group of stakeholders for input on the program’s future, he said.
Surprised landowners like Weissing — some of whom had the agreements in place for 25 years — said they were blindsided. The sign-pulling affected a few organic farmers, at least one of whom was using the chemical-free ditch as a required buffer against drifting chemicals from adjacent nonorganic farms.
“There’s a lot at stake,” said Tim Ahrens, whose parents own land on Hwy. 14 in Winona County that they lease to a certified organic dairy farm.
Seven landowners with property abutting state highways in Houston, Winona, Fillmore and Wabasha counties had their “Do Not Spray” signs pulled. Crews also sprayed herbicide in one of the ditches, the one adjacent to a certified organic dairy farm on the Ahrens land.
That was the only no-spray ditch sprayed, Fischbach said. He said he didn’t know which chemical was applied or what effect it had on the dairy. MnDOT won’t spray any of the seven tracts until they “get some further clarity” on the future of the program, he said.
Dale Pangrac, who runs the organic dairy, declined to comment for this story.
The nonprofit Land Stewardship Project, tracking the situation, said Pangrac had baled some of the sprayed hay, which he can’t feed to his milking cows now.
In general, farmers who are certified to USDA organic standards must prevent contamination from chemicals. Any unexpected spraying could require them to quarantine some of their products or set aside affected land for three years to transition it back to organic.
“It’s a big hassle when it happens,” said Chuck Anderas, an organic specialist with the nonprofit Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) in Spring Valley, Wis.
Connor Dunn, an organizer with Land Stewardship Project, said MnDOT needs a better overall no-spray program. And killing it would be an unnecessary financial burden on farms using the ditches as organic buffers.
“We hope that MnDOT will provide financial compensation to these farmers to make up for the part of their fields that is no longer certified organic due to spraying nearby,” Dunn said.
Weissing, who raises Dutch Belted dairy cattle on his hobby farm, said he’s hopeful the no-spray program will continue — and frustrated he hasn’t gotten straight answers.
He said he can still see a dead patch in his ditch where MnDOT sprayed weeds last year, despite the signed agreement no to.
“Nothing will grow in that spot,” Weissing said.
The milk his cows produce is for his family’s own consumption, he explained. They are very health conscious, he said, and want to limit unnecessary exposure to chemicals. There’s a lot of drift in the area from farm chemicals sprayed on fields, he said.
“We can’t hope or pretend that we can protect ourselves completely from herbicides and pesticides and fungicides … but we like to do what we can,” Weissing said.
MnDOT doesn’t promote its no-spray agreements, and there is no formal statewide program. It has written agreements with just 18 landowners statewide.
Many more likely have agreements that aren’t in writing, said Tina Markeson, supervisor for roadside vegetation management in MnDOT’s Office of Environmental Stewardship. The agency has a history of verbal agreements with landowners for managing ditches, she said. That’s something it’s trying to change so it can better track things.
“Now is a good time to talk and look at, ‘How do we do these?’ ” Markeson said.
The most common herbicides the agency uses in ditches, she said, are Roundup, Escort, Garlon, Transline, Milestone, Method and one known as 2,4-D. Applicators have to be trained by MnDOT or licensed by the state Department of Agriculture, she said.
Counties and other local governments have similar no-spray programs. Winona County runs two — one for not spraying and one for not spraying or mowing — and works with more than 50 landowners.
Not all of them keep up their ditches as agreed to, said David Kramer, Winona County engineer.
Kramer said he supports native vegetation such as prairie plants to aid pollinators, and that he understands trees near the roads add to their appeal. But the owners of the ditches have to balance that with safety and maintenance of the road, he said.
“We have had some landowners that basically have done nothing,” Kramer said. “Over time, the trees and vegetation just kind of close in on the right of way.”