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Published June 29, 2010, 02:28 PM

Farmers show realities of farming with wildlife rules

MENOKEN, N.D. — If ever the North Dakota Grain Growers needed an Environmental Protection Agency field tour, officials say the time is now.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

MENOKEN, N.D. — If ever the North Dakota Grain Growers needed an Environmental Protection Agency field tour, officials say the time is now.

A half-dozen EPA officials came out for the group’s annual environmental tour. The tours started June 15 in Bismarck, N.D., and went through the week in Fargo, N.D., and Grand Forks, N.D., June 18.

The first field stop was on the farm of Doug Goehring, North Dakota’s commissioner of agriculture, who farms near Menoken, N.D., about 10 miles east of Bismarck.

Terry Weckerly, president of the Grain Growers from Hurdsfield, N.D., about 40 miles west of Carrington, N.D., says he’s been involved in the Grain Growers for four years and the tour for three years. Weckerly says that since he’s been farming, there have been rules and regulations coming from EPA, but never so many at once as there are right now, he says, to the best of his knowledge. Air ambient quality standards, fuel storage dikes, the zero drift policies and the field borders, are among the developing issues.

“We’re just all of a sudden inundated by such a large number of things coming at us, it’s really overwhelming,” Weckerly says. He says carbon sequestration regulations could be a can of worms for North Dakota, depending on how rules come out. He says those rules tend to favor strict no-till, but that’s not always practical in diverse, variable North Dakota.

“How do I farm when I fear releasing the carbon, but I can’t seed the field if I don’t work it?” Weckerly asks. “What if they sign me up for a yearly payment to take this, and I can’t even plant a dadburned crop to grow in that? How am I going to sequester carbon this year if I don’t plant a new crop in it?”

He says it’s important for EPA officials to see how “we’re not mismanaging our resources” and to see the conditions that are unique to the state.

“Most of these people are reasonable people but they need to come out here and see what’s going on,” Weckerly says.

At one point on the tour, Weckerly shows officials an example of a kochia weed, and says farmers are grateful the agency has allowed a Section 18 emergency registration for Spartan herbicide for flax for 2010.

“That’s what we like to show you — this is the need; this is the reason,” he says. He adds that when the weed gets larger than a quarter coin, it’s next to impossible to control in flax. He says the Spartan registration is useful for rotating with other chemistry to keep them effective.

Grateful but wary

Goehring explains that his home is 1,000 acres. He raises winter wheat, spring wheat, lentils, sunflowers, soybeans and corn. His son, Dustin, largely has taken over the farm and employee management.

Among other things, Goehring shows the officials how wetland regulations work — and sometimes don’t work — for prairie pothole country.

In a first stop, Goehring points out three different classes of wetlands — one very short-term wet spot, a second spot that holds water about a month and a third that holds water two or three months.

“When you start extending these buffers, how are you going to impact agriculture?” he asks. “If you’re going to start addressing aquatic life, whether it’s vegetation or whether it’s species swimming around in there, you have to realize these are temporary to begin with.”

In one case, Goehring tells his visitors that the wetland they are looking at are too late for planting but it would be dry enough to travel across in two weeks, without replenishing rainfall and with temperatures in the 80s and 90s. Any aquatic organisms go dormant and practices farmers have been implementing during the past 10 to 40 years haven’t been disruptive or hurt the environment, Goehring says.

In another case, Goehring shows the group a wetland that measures up to 60 acres but can be farmed in about half of the years. Here, Goehring says, he proposed to federal officials that he create a deeper, 4- to 7-acre wetland, by draining water on the rest of the area. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service allowed Goehring to drain excess “sheet water,” but declined his offer to drain the larger area and concentrate water into a permanent spot in the middle.

Chasing the buffer

As it stands, Goehring thinks, any young ducks or geese the wetland holds are in more danger because they fall victim to predators as the patch dries up. If he could deepen it, Goehring tells the EPA officials, he could surround it by a buffer strip of reed canarygrass, and both agriculture and wildlife would benefit.

Pesticide users on or near water who don’t have a permit by April 2011 could be in violation of the Clean Water Act.

Jim Gray, director of the state ag department’s Agricultural Chemical Division, focused his attention on EPA pesticide programs that involve pyrethroid pesticides during the tour.

The issue is how to implement permanent vegetative filter strips around wetlands that are here today, but often gone tomorrow. Agricultural pyrethroid insecticides — products with commercial names such as Mustang and Asana — recently have had label changes requiring the construction of “vegetative

filter strips” and “use buffers”

around aquatic habitats.”

“The big question is: What does that term ‘aquatic habitat’ mean? Are small, seasonal wetlands like this aquatic habitat? And how do producers manage insects and still comply with the label?” Gray asks.

Gray says the intent of a 10-foot vegetative filter strip is to keep soil particles from going into the wetland. He says the rules say a farmer must “construct and maintain” a strip, but he wonders whether a natural strip might suffice.

Further, he says the ag pyrethroid chemical monitoring is on the water “column” and not on the sediment.

“I’d really like to go into water bodies and do some sediment sampling and see — is there genuinely a problem with the pyrethroids in the sediments,” Gray says.

Some of the EPA officials on the trip are the very ones doing risk assessments under chemical labels. The visitors also serve as resources for those who ultimately put final touches on the rules.

What’s excessive?

Michael Goodin, a branch chief in the EPA Office of Pesticide Programs, listened to the complications.

“I think we’ve been aware that buffer strips and buffer zones, required for many of the pesticide applications, can be a challenge for many growers, depending on the features they have on the land,” he says.

Seasonal prairie potholes can “be a challenge for a lot of growers in using pesticides effectively,’’ he adds, stopping short of saying the challenges are excessive.

Goodin says the big challenge in EPA is writing label language that is national in scope and makes sense to as many people as possible. The problem in North Dakota is creating a buffer zone out of something that is only here on certain years. States are having an issue with that, both around temporary wetlands in pothole areas, but also around drainage ditches, or in areas such as sugar beet production areas in northwest North Dakota.

“Irrigation is what fuels that,” Gray says. “Ag production is in close proximity to those irrigation areas because that’s how you get water. So how do you comply with minimum distances from that water and still grow a sugar beet crop?”

Stakes are high.

While the prairie pothole is big for waterfowl breeding, Goehring emphasizes its ag output. Half of the hard red spring wheat in the country is grown here and needs protection from such pests as sawfly and wheat midge. The state is No. 1 in the nation in sunflowers and must be protected from stem weevils. Corn is bedeviled by corn borers.

“I could go on and on,” Goehring says.

Goehring emphasizes current political buzzwords and a hint of humor to underline the value of agriculture, noting that one wetland was farmed last year, and “was a good field of corn — paid bills, stimulated the economy, paid taxes, which actually employed a lot of us here, right now, including myself.”

“If we continue to put burdensome use restrictions on agricultural producers there is a huge incentive to them to — legally or otherwise — eliminate those water bodies,” Gray says.

“They’d drain them and we wouldn’t be having this discussion,” Goehring says.

Weckerly, who’s been active in the Grain Growers for four years, acknowledges it’s difficult to gauge the effectiveness of each trip, but it is important to keep talking with EPA and other regulators: “Maybe you don’t hit a home run every time, but you’ve got to swing batter swing.”