Objecting all the way, most farmers meet buffer deadline

Tim Madsen examines the vegetation growing in a buffer strip he installed last summer along a stream on his southwest Minnesota farm. (Mark Steil/MPR News)

By Mark Steil, Minnesota Public Radio News
November 10, 2017

Along a tributary of the Redwood River in Pipestone County in southwest Minnesota, Tim Madsen pokes at the vegetation in the buffer strip he installed last summer.

“This would be alfalfa,” he said. “And I believe this probably, I’m going to guess, would be bromegrass.”

Madsen is one of many farmers in the state who will meet a Nov. 1 deadline to have an unplanted strip of vegetation between his crops and the water.

The idea is that the vegetation will filter cropland runoff; removing some of the pollutants in the water before it reaches the stream. But true to the on-going debate across Minnesota about the contentious law pushed by Gov. Mark Dayton, Madsen is not entirely sold on the buffer idea. Mainly he wonders how much good it will do.

“I think it’s kind of a small band-aid, put it that way.” Scanning the horizon, taking in a mile or more of farmland, Madsen agrees that buffers help reduce the amount of farm pollution entering the water. But he just can’t see how a 50-foot grass strip can do much to filter the rivers of runoff a summer downpour can generate across miles of farm fields.

He built the buffer anyway, mainly to avoid future headaches.

“And if you weren’t going to do it they’re probably going to come after you for some monetary fines,” he said.

It looks like most Minnesota landowners have taken that attitude. The Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources has identified about 400,000 sites across the state that need a grass buffer along public waters. The board’s executive director John Jaschke said the required buffer is now in place in about 95 percent of those sites.

It’s unclear though exactly how many of those strips have been put in since the law passed two years ago because most public waters already had some sort of buffer protection in place. Still, Jaschke said the agency is pleased with the high compliance figure. Any landowner who can’t meet the November first deadline can get a waiver to extend the deadline until July 1, 2018.

More than 1,000 landowners statewide have been granted the extra time. One of them is Joel Minett, who farms near the town of Ruthton in southwest Minnesota.

How does Minett fell about the buffer legislation?

“Frustrated, did not agree with it, and still don’t today,” he said.

Minett doesn’t like that farmers aren’t compensated for the lost income they suffer when they convert revenue-generating cropland to buffer strips.

“It means a lot to me,” said Minett. “My hands have bled out here, and they’ve been dirty many times. And I just don’t like somebody coming and taking something from me and not giving me anything for it and just expecting me just to do it.”

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