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Potatoes are harvested in late September in a field southeast of Park Rapids in the Pinelands Sands area where acres of forests have been cleared for farmland. Barry Amundson / The Forum

In northwest Minnesota, farmers and environmentalists clash over possible contamination, other issues

CHAMBERLAIN, Minn. — Mike Tauber had a favorite pond in the Badoura State Forest near his home that is hidden amid the pines that soar toward the sky throughout the region. A few years back it was a great place to fish in the summer and to go duck hunting in the fall, he said.

Now, the pond has shrunk dramatically and the fish are gone. A ring about 20 yards to 30 yards wide of brush and smaller trees surrounds it as the water has dropped several feet. Tauber blames the seven irrigation systems within a mile that spread water on the nearby potato fields that once were a continuous stretch of forest.

Just down the highway near a spot on the map called Chamberlain and along a minimum maintenance road is a vast stretch of unused land, which Tauber estimates at more than 780 acres. It was cleared by the Potlatch Lumber Co. which has been pulling its timber operations out of the region and selling its land.

The land was sold to a Fargo-based potato growing company, he said. However, the company pulled permit requests in 2015 for irrigation wells in the area amid a swirl of complaints about the clearing of forest lands in the area and expansion of those wells, Tauber said.

The soft-spoken but passionate Tauber and his wife, Jen, fear that an irrigation system and potato fields will spring up on that land in the coming years in what they believe will only add to the degradation of the environment they said they see in the region.

The couple isn't alone.

Seeking environmental study

This region in northwest and north-central Minnesota is called the Pineland Sands because its forests and sandy soil are ideal for growing potatoes and other crops when they are irrigated and fed nitrogen. Many residents in portions of Becker, Cass, Hubbard and Wadena counties have joined the Taubers and want to see changes. The newest group to form in fighting what they fear is air and water pollution is the Northern Water Alliance.

More than 1,000 residents in the past decade have signed four petitions calling for environmental studies, only to see them fall by the wayside as permit applications were either withdrawn, lowered in number or other legal action was taken.

On the other side of the Pineland Sands equation are the farming interests.

Offutt Farms is the main player, but the 55-year-old Fargo company is joined by many other much smaller operators who work the land and are facing a struggle to survive, especially in these times of poor weather conditions and low commodity prices.

The company's irrigated fields — many on former forest lands — cover about 24,000 acres in Minnesota. Offutt Farms is the largest potato grower in the nation and a major employer in the region with about 1,600 employees.

Anne Struthers, director of communications for Offutt Farms, stressed there are many agricultural and other players in the area when it comes to issues raised by the Northern Water Alliance.

She noted that although the company has purchased a lot of the former Potlatch forest land, she said the private company doesn't disclose purchases.

"It's important to note that not all the land we buy ends up as farmland," Struthers said.

For example, the company recently donated 40 acres of land near Huntersville to provide a "safe place for local high schools' clay pigeon shooting clubs to practice," she said.

And as for the 444 irrigation permits in the Pineland Sands region, she said the number a farmer has doesn't necessarily correlate with the amount of acres the farmer actually irrigates.

"When we first considered investments in Potlatch land to expand our crop rotation, we submitted multiple applications for permits on land we didn't end up purchasing or ultimately didn't end up farming. So the number of actual permits doesn't accurately reflect the number of irrigation wells we're using," she said.

Groundwater concerns

This fall, the two competing sides are facing off over irrigation permits. The water alliance filed a petition (signed by 170 residents and accepted by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources) to protest three irrigation permits for 300 acres sought by Sebeka cattleman and farmer Tim Nolte and his family as well as for Offutt Farms for increased irrigation water usage.

Filing of the petition means, for the first time, a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Environmental Assessment Worksheet will be completed on the Nolte irrigation plan before a permit is granted or denied or before it could possibly result in a more in-depth Environmental Impact Statement.

On the other hand, Offutt Farms was granted permits for more water usage this fall to irrigate more cover crops on some of its fields. That move has been praised by state officials and the water alliance people as a step in the right direction to improve soil health and prevent erosion.

But the EAW is also important because since 2015, the DNR has been trying to get about $1.5 million or more in funding from the state Legislature to study the region's environmental issues, especially concerns about groundwater.

Every year, including this past year, the DNR has been turned down. This EAW gives the DNR at least a chance to weigh in on the Pineland Sands concerns.

With the latest developments this fall, the top issue of concern to DNR officials has become more clear.

During a field day organized by Nolte on Monday, Oct. 21, that drew stakeholders from all walks of government and agricultural life — even water alliance leaders — to his farm in Wadena County, the controversy was discussed for more than two hours.

DNR officials told the group they are most concerned about the possibility that too much nitrogen is sinking into the groundwater in the more vulnerable porous sandy soils and causing drinking water concerns.

"Some areas are fine, some are poor," said DNR official Randall Doneen of St. Paul.

He said about 10 percent or more of wells tested in several townships in the region have nitrate levels above 10 milligrams per liter, which is above the state's health safety level.

"That's the reason we ordered the EAW," Doneen said. "It's not about Mr. Nolte. It's not about RDO (Offutt Farms). It's about everybody who is contributing nitrogen to the groundwater that is part of it. So it's a potential cumulative effect issue."

Doneen said the DNR knew this would be a problem in 2015, referencing the state-funded studies that have been turned down.

"We didn't want this to end up in somebody's specific lap like it has," Doneen said in reference to Nolte.

Doneen's boss at the DNR headquarters in St. Paul, Steve Colvin, who is director of ecological and water resources, echoed those words in an earlier interview.

Colvin said the EAW requires asking the applicant a series of environmental questions about the project as well as how it could affect water, air, fish and wildlife species and if they expect any cumulative effects. The DNR then reviews the submission and looks for any data gaps and works with the applicant. The public is given 30 days to respond.

Colvin said it is unpredictable when an EAW will get done.

Unsafe nitrate levels

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture has been collecting data from a voluntary private well check in the area, as well as statewide, to see if nitrate levels are climbing above the safe level.

State agriculture department hydrologist Kim Kaiser, who visited with Park Rapids area residents at a meeting in late October, said in an interview that up to 13% of private wells tested in some townships in Becker, Wadena and Hubbard counties during the past four years have nitrate levels above the health safety standard.

Kaiser said they will be working with farmers and companies on a special nitrogen and fertilizer management program in the areas of Minnesota, including the Pineland Sands, where there are elevated problems and where it seems there is community involvement in "wanting us there."

She also said a new groundwater protection rule will take effect next fall that will ban fall fertilizer applications in some areas of the state.

Meanwhile, Nolte, who isn't known for mincing words, said in response to questions at his field day last month that he has always been careful with the amount of nitrogen he uses on his crops, as well as with other farm chemicals.

His agricultural consultants and neighbors at the meeting backed him up.

Nolte said he mostly uses Roundup and carefully follows the directions. "We don't overuse it, " he said.

As for drinking water on his farm, he said it's been checked many times for nitrates and is "completely safe."

More concerns

However, the Northern Water Alliance members have other concerns. Some of them gathered earlier this fall for a two-hour long discussion in a Chamberlain church southeast of Park Rapids.

The residents, led by Tauber, said they have been concerned for years about deforestation, aquifer depletion, air and dust contamination, wildlife habitat destruction and water level drops and algae in ponds and lakes.

They believe they could possibly see a few answers to their concerns in the EAW or its aftermath.

The water alliance group who spoke with The Forum included a retired pastor and his wife, lawyers from Minneapolis who are planning to retire to a lake in the area, a soil biologist and the Taubers.

Retired Pastor Bob Munneke, whose family has lived in the area for more than 100 years, is concerned about the livelihoods of the people in the area, those selling tackle, being fishing guides, building homes and cabins or running resorts.

Marilyn McKnight and her partner, Steve Erickson, who have been helping farmers and others as mediators in their Twin Cities law firm but are some day retiring to their cabin at Ten Mile Lake, echoed the words and said "if we don't have clean lakes, we aren't going to have tourists."

Erickson, who has relatives who farm in the Red River Valley, said he was visiting with them this past summer and they noted how fragile the soil was in the Pineland Sands compared to the Valley's "gumbo muck."

In addition, the residents have been concerned about the spraying of fields with chemicals and the drift onto their properties as well as possible groundwater contamination.

Although Tauber said farmer operators in some areas have apparently switched from spraying with a helicopter to using tractors to try to limit drift, he said he has talked to many area residents who are still concerned.

One of the chemicals the group said is used on the potatoes is a fungicide called Echo-720. Erickson and Tauber said there's a warning on the product's label that says "if inhaled it can be fatal and can also cause serious eye damage."

As for Offutt Farms, Struthers stresses that their company is "driven by our commitment to environmentally friendly agriculture."

"It's part of our culture to continuously research, invest in and implement progressively sustainable farming methods that make us better," she wrote in response to questions by The Forum.

As for nitrates, she said they use "slow-release, environmentally safe nitrogen (ESN) on our Minnesota farms."

ESN is a newly developed fertilizer that is contained within a flexible polymer coating. The coating, according to the manufacturer's website, releases nitrogen in response to soil temperature giving crops the nitrates only when they need it.

To further try to control nitrates, Struthers said the company takes advantage of precision agriculture techniques and high-tech equipment that many farmers are using across the nation to limit fertilizer and other chemicals to not only reduce their costs but to improve soil health and be more environmentally friendly.