LEWISTON, Minn. — A Minnesota Department of Transportation crew pulling no-spray signs from the ground was the first indication for Dale Pangrac that MnDOT was discontinuing a 25-year-long agreement that kept herbicides from being sprayed near his organic farm.
Under the agreement, Pangrac, the owner of the land he's renting and a handful of other southeast Minnesota organic operations pledged to maintain nearby road ditches and, in turn, MnDOT agreed not to spray there. Now Pangrac and Richard Ahrens, the landowner, are worried about what the move means for organic certifications and bothered by a lack of communication from MnDOT.
Pangrac, 72, rents the land from Ahrens to raise organic dairy and hay off of U.S. Highway 14. Ahrens was the first to ask why the signs were being taken down, and he was told the no-spray program had been discontinued for good.
His son, Tim Ahrens, called the MnDOT District 6 office on behalf of his dad, who doesn’t hear well on the phone, and spoke to Andrew Fischbach, maintenance supervisor in the area.
Ahrens said at first, Fischbach told him the cancellation of the agreements was due to a lack of interest in the program. Ahrens asked whether landowners and renters who’d grown accustomed to the deals had been consulted on this, and Fischbach told him they were not.
Fischbach, who has overseen the agreements for two years, confirmed that to Agweek this month and said the program was not happening in 2020 and its future is undetermined.
He said signs were removed as early as Aug. 20, and the decision to remove signage without notification was his. All participating farms had every sign removed within a couple of weeks, he said.
The District 6 maintenance supervisor gave different reasons to people inquiring about the program's termination. In an interview with Agweek, Fischbach said the program needed to be reassessed to meet current regulations and statutes.
"To make sure the program put together 25 years ago has kept up with the changes since that time," Fishbach said. "The biggest thing is to just relook at the program."
He said for starters, there are new noxious weeds since the program began, and safety standards need to be reevaluated as speed limits have increased, which changes the defined "clear zone" that MnDOT requires.
"We'll look at what the program will look like, and what kind of process it will be, or if there is a comment period and local citizen participation," Fishbach said. But that process is up in the air as of this fall.
The second reason he gave on Sept. 23 for the program to be halted was a clerical oversight. “Because of COVID-19 and other situations,” Fischbach said their office simply didn't get to mailing out the forms this year.
Shona Snater is an organizer with the Land Stewardship Project, of which many of the farmers affected by the change are members. Snater claims that when she asked about the program, Fishbach told her it had always been a good faith agreement, and there was negligence by some of the farms involved.
"It's a serious issue and we're really struggling with them communicating with us," Snater said. "(MnDOT) is not taking any type of input from the public about it and are just ignoring what farmers have to say."
Snater said a policy or past contracts for the program are not accessible to the public.
'Acting right and in good faith'
Ahrens said his dad, Pangrac and the other affected organic growers have received a one-page agreement in the mail each year that spells out the program. He said it's clear in the agreement that MnDOT still reserves the right to spray land if there is an outbreak of noxious weeds but, for their family, that's not the case.
"It's very well kept, by previous renters and my father," Ahrens said. "It's not perfect, but it's nowhere near the worst section of Highway 14, related to weed maintenance."
This year, Ahrens said no form came in the mail for the program. His family assumed it was related to COVID-19 complications.
"So we were surprised and sort of blindsided by the information that it was over and how it was handled," Ahrens said.
He said he can't speak for the other participants in the agreements, but Pangrac and his father have grown to rely on the program for organic certification.
"It's very consequential, in terms of planning and finances," he said. "For the sake of organic certification, you can't lessen or eliminate that buffer, because that counts as part of your distance away from any herbicide sprayed."
The all-over communication upset Ahrens and his father the most.
"We thought we were acting right and in good faith, and it was one of those occasions when the state and its citizens were working together, kind of a win-win," he said. "We just want to try to work it, and continue the program."
Fischbach said, in retrospect, informing landowners of the program's fate before taking down signs "would have been best at that point."
Fischbach declined to apologize to the farmers involved, saying he didn't want to "seem ingenuine."
"I've learned communication is vital, and we'll work to learn from this and improve on it in the future," he said.
Fischbach said that the landowners affected by the ended program can reach him directly via email at email@example.com or by phone at 507-286-7575.
Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified Tim Ahrens as the son of the renting farmer. He is not related to Dale Pangrac.