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'Enforce' only for bad behavior

FARGO, N.D. -- Over the Fourth of July weekend, I think a lot about what it means to live in America.

My wife and I help lead an English Conversation Group at our church in north Fargo, so we get a hint of the concerns of others around the world -- Nepal, Japan, Hungary, China, Korea and Brazil. Some of the Chinese people I've talked to are afraid of drinking their water, breathing their air or eating sunflower seeds grown in their country. Some marvel at how clean our air is or that we can eat fish from our lakes.

In America, we can be proud our state and federal governments look out for our environment and the safety of our food. But we should be just as proud of our capitalism and agricultural industry. There is a limit to how much control nonfarming bureaucrats should have in telling farmers how to grow things.

Recently, I was assigned to connect with Ron D. Offutt, the chairman emeritus of the R.D. Offutt Co. farm and food group, as well as RDO Equipment Co. Offutt is one of those classic capitalists who parlayed his ability to raise potatoes into the largest company of its type in the world.

Together, Offutt's companies are responsible for $3 billion in annual sales and hundreds of jobs in areas of Minnesota and several other states where jobs are not always in good supply. With his companies' connections to some of the world's most sophisticated techniques, they have been recognized as some of the best in their business.

Mistakes were made

Offutt acknowledged his company made some mistakes regarding recent water permit applications for some Potlatch Corp. land. I think Offutt's farm managers individually applied for preliminary water permits at a far greater rate than they needed or wanted, in part as a defensive measure to make sure others wouldn't beat them to the punch.

Like them or not, proactive competitors are used to making things happen. The Offutt associates say they were looking for enough land to move their 20,000 acres of potatoes to a four-year rotation, rather than a three-year rotation. That's supposed to be good for potato marketing, although -- it's a fact -- it would add a few thousand acres of farmland where there had been trees.

And it will add irrigation and the application of nitrogen and crop protection products that come with farming. Potlatch says perhaps as few as 6,000 acres of its land might be appropriate for farming. That's about four or five average-size commercial farms in a state of 10,000 lakes and 81,000 farms.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources surely has a responsibility to look at these applications and decide whether a collection of water permits deserves more study. But in this case, DNR officials informed the Offutt associates in a conference call they would require an Environmental Assessment Worksheet and placed a letter of information on the DNR website before the conversation concluded. The DNR scheduled press availability the same day. The DNR commissioner referred to the case as an "enforcement" action, but then corrected himself, saying that was an "unfortunate" choice of words.

Enforcement mentality

Offutt has made a lot of his fortune in the Park Rapids, Minn., area. He hints the DNR's enforcement-like approach makes him want to make any future expansions elsewhere, perhaps where government officials don't play gotcha games, and where an enforcement approach is reserved for bad behavior.

I think a middle ground is possible.

It starts with sincere, friendly conversation. I'd think many Americans -- DNR officials and possibly potato production critics -- wanted some affordable potato salad as they sat around a Minnesota lake that's really clean.

I think we can do both.

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