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Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton says on Wednesday, April 26,2017, that he remains committed to vetoing a bill that modifies or delays his buffer law. Don Davis / Forum News Service

Minnesota farmers make changes in buffer zones around water a top issue

ST. PAUL—A new requirement for farmers to provide plant buffers around water has bubbled up to be a top rural issue in the Minnesota Capitol, and not necessarily politically partisan.

Farmers need more information before the buffer law begins Nov. 1, a Democratic-leaning farm group reports farmers said during a series of 14 meetings around the state. One of the major topics the Minnesota Farmers Union meetings highlighted was Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton's buffer initiative that lawmakers approved in 2015.

"It is all over the board," Farmers Union President Gary Wertish told reporters Wednesday, April 26, about farmers' reaction to buffers.

His group's written report came off stronger. It said farmers want more clarity about what the buffer law requires, they want to be paid for land they must take out of crops to meet the law, flexibility is needed because the same solution does not work for every farm in every part of the state and that urban areas need to be better regulated to govern pollutants that flow into water in cities.

Rural Republicans are even stronger in favor of changing the law.

Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, said he is certain that House and Senate negotiators will embrace provisions to alter the buffer law, including giving local governments more authority and providing more flexibility on whether to plant 16.5- or 50-foot buffer strips around water. He said there also is a likelihood that overall outdoor bills will delay enforcement of the law while the numerous questions are sorted out.

Dayton made it clear Wednesday that he will not budge on his pledge to veto any bill containing a delay or change to the buffer law he championed.

"This is an urgent situation," Dayton said about farm pollutants that flow into water. "They should look at the facts."

Water, especially in southwestern Minnesota, is so polluted that officials recommend against swimming in it and eating fish from it.

"We are talking about a hidden crisis," he said.

Farmers have complained that Dayton pushed through the buffer law without talking to them enough first.

"The governor has admitted that he did not handle it quite right," Wertish said. "That probably is the real issue."

While not specifically tying it to buffers, the Farmers Union reported that farmers want to be included in state decisions.

"Politicians need to really get out here and listen to us, not listen and tell, just listen and hear," the organization said.

Kittson County Administrator Eric Christensen wrote to Dayton on behalf of county commissioners last week urging Dayton to keep a promise he made last August in Warren to be open to looking at buffer law changes.

"We ask that you demonstrate this openness to looking at changes by working with citizens of Kittson County to create a law we can all live with," Christensen wrote.

On Wednesday, Dayton said that he wants to wait until next year before considering further changes.

Kittson is one of four county boards in Fabian's district to vote in favor of changing the law.

"They are not saying make it go away necessarily; they are saying make it work," said Fabian, who is chief House negotiator for the bill including buffer provisions.

Fabian said farmers already have made plans for this year's crop season and it is too late to make changes to meet the buffer law in the fall. A list of alternatives to buffers is not even being approved by state officials until next month, he added.

"The cart is before the horse," Fabian said.

U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minneapolis, used buffers as an example of what makes people think government is too big.

"When people, when rural people, or any people, say government is too big, I think what they mean is, you know, should the government be able to tell me 'I can't plant my whole field and have to create a buffer and then not compensate me,'" Ellison told a University of Minnesota forum earlier this month.

Other things the Farmers Union reported farmers said at recent town hall meetings include:

• Many farmers cannot afford to buy health insurance, with one couple saying they pay more than $43,000 a year in premiums and medical bills before insurance starts to pay. "There was almost universal support for some kind of public healthcare option to be implemented."

• A frequent issue dealt with a lack of available laborers, particularly on farms that grow produce, berries and vegetables.

• The state should provide more support for locally grown food.

• Increased government funding should be approved for renewable energy such as solar, wind and biofuels.

• Farm landowners favor a tax provision being considered to give them a break in paying for school construction projects.

• The state should work to get rid of Palmer Amaranth, an invasive weed that is spreading through the state.

• Broadband high-speed internet remains a priority for rural residents, with farmers citing it as a way to keep them on par with city dwellers. "Without it, farmers and communities cannot retain residents, or be part of the world's economy."

• The state needs to provide adequate funding for road and bridge work.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.