Cattleman Tim Nolte thought he was doing all the things proper by the land in Wadena County that his household has been farming for many years.
He planted bushes and canopy crops to stop erosion and defend the close by Redeye River. He obtained licensed in a state program to guard water high quality.
However when Nolte purchased 600 acres of neighboring land in hopes of irrigating about half of it to develop crops, he wasn’t anticipating the controversy that may observe.
“It will get to a degree of anger the place it is virtually damage,” he mentioned. “That is the emotion that is in my home day-after-day over this.”
Nolte’s plan has gotten caught up in a yearslong debate over altering land use in the Pineland Sands, which covers Wadena, Cass, Becker and Hubbard counties. His request for 3 water permits to irrigate about 300 acres in Wadena County got here at a time of heightened concern over how widespread land use modifications within the area — clearing forest to make means for rising potatoes and different row crops — is affecting the area’s land and water.
The Minnesota Division of Pure Assets ordered Nolte to endure a examine referred to as an environmental evaluation worksheet earlier than it will approve the three groundwater permits he is looking for.
The evaluation, also called an EAW, discloses details about the potential environmental impacts of a undertaking. The individual or enterprise proposing the undertaking should present all the info for the EAW and covers a lot of the price.
As a part of the Nolte environmental evaluation, the DNR is looking for to review the cumulative impacts of including extra irrigated farmland.
Greater than 100 individuals signed a petition asking for the assessment. They’re involved that the continued conversion of land that was as soon as forest into row crops is resulting in the degradation and overuse of the area’s groundwater.
From forest to potatoes
A lot of that transformed land as soon as belonged to the Potlatch paper firm. Potlatch bought off hundreds of acres to personal landowners, together with R.D. Offutt, a significant potato producer and a provider to McDonald’s.
Potatoes want loads of water, and the usage of groundwater for irrigation on this area has elevated dramatically in current a long time. That is raised issues and prompted ongoing research about whether or not it is affecting the aquifer and floor waters akin to lakes and streams.
In 2015, R.D. Offutt heightened that concern when it utilized for greater than 50 properly assessments and permits from the DNR. The DNR required Offutt to finish an environmental evaluation worksheet first.
The corporate ended up withdrawing all however 5 of the requests, and the DNR didn’t require the assessment of the smaller variety of permits. However Randall Doneen, conservation help and regulation supervisor for the DNR, mentioned the difficulty did not go away.
“We have been involved that even when proper now we solely have 5, there will probably be extra, and we will probably be confronted with the identical query of sustainability,” Doneen mentioned.
The sandy soils that give the Pineland Sands its title additionally enable nitrates from fertilizer to journey simply into groundwater, the supply of ingesting water for almost all of space residents.
Current exams have discovered greater than 10 % of the personal wells in some townships have nitrate ranges above the state well being customary for ingesting water, Doneen mentioned.
In 2019, the DNR requested funding from the Legislature to fund a broader examine of the environmental impacts of the land modifications occurring within the Pineland Sands. State lawmakers didn’t approve the funding.
And although land conversion and groundwater allow requests have slowed since 2015, they do maintain coming. Doneen mentioned the DNR has been rigorously evaluating these requests, realizing that every one can contribute to the bigger drawback.
The Nolte enlargement may be a small piece of the puzzle, he mentioned, however “every little piece that you simply add on is including one other little increment of influence.”
Impacts of a altering panorama
Mike and Jennifer Tauber are among the many native residents who’ve been elevating the alarm in regards to the environmental results of the land use modifications on this area.
They constructed their home 25 years in the past within the woods of rural Backus, close to the Badoura State Forest. Since then, they’ve seen the world change. The land subsequent to theirs, which was as soon as owned by Potlatch, is now an enormous, open subject, the place R.D. Offutt grows potatoes.
“We truly would decide blueberries on the entrance portion over there very often,” Mike Tauber mentioned. “So to see all of it scraped off was fairly bewildering.”
The Taubers have been pushing for the DNR to require environmental opinions earlier than permitting extra irrigation. They are saying they don’t have something in opposition to the Noltes, whose farm is about 40 miles southwest of their residence.
However the Taubers fear in regards to the influence of chemical compounds sprayed on close by fields. They usually worry that the clear ingesting water this area has lengthy loved is altering.
“It is actually high-quality water. You do not want a softener. It is fantastic to drink,” Mike Tauber mentioned. “Nature does a terrific job of filtering water, however as quickly as you place chemical compounds on, there is no natural matter on this floor to carry the chemical.”
‘Put by way of hell’
Tim Nolte mentioned he desires to develop hay and corn on the land for his cattle. However some residents fear if he will get the irrigation allow, he’ll lease the land again to R.D. Offutt to develop potatoes.
Nolte’s eyes tear up as he talks about how he hopes that including extra cropland will give his youngsters an opportunity to maintain farming. He mentioned he does not know if he can afford to maintain the land whereas additionally paying hundreds of for the environmental evaluation.
“There is a motive why we get very emotional as a result of we now have a number of labor caught into this factor,” he mentioned. “To stroll away from what we obtained into it, the cash and the labor — a ton of labor — it is gonna be tough.”
State Rep. John Poston, R-Lake Shore, whose district consists of the Pineland Sands, mentioned the Nolte household has been singled out unfairly.
“They’re doing all the things in my thoughts that they’ll do to be good conservationists of the land and the water. They’re doing the proper factor for his or her household,” Poston mentioned. “They usually’ve been sort of put by way of hell with this course of.”
‘Come a good distance’
The DNR expects to have a draft environmental evaluation worksheet of the Nolte enlargement accomplished in a few month. After a public remark interval, the company will resolve whether or not a extra in-depth examine is required.
No matter what occurs with the Noltes’ farm, the broader query over the right way to handle modifications to this area’s land and water are prone to persist.
A lot of the nitrate contamination within the Pineland Sands comes from outdated farming practices which are throwing in the towel, mentioned Keith Olander, dean of agricultural research at Central Lakes School in close by Staples.
“We have come a good distance as a complete area, by way of how we’re sustaining water high quality and treating water a lot in a different way,” Olander mentioned. “We will not change what the numbers are from 20 or 30 years in the past. We will change going ahead, so they are not going to get any worse.”
R.D. Offutt declined an interview request. On its web site, the corporate touts its sustainability efforts, together with lowering phosphorus and nitrogen use, utilizing forecasting fashions to find out when and the way a lot fertilizer and pesticide to use, and utilizing low-pressure irrigation nozzles.
Olander mentioned extra farmers are adopting these forms of precision agriculture strategies to ensure they are not making use of extra water or nitrogen than their crops want.
“We do a number of water high quality research the place we’re monitoring the leaching of motion of vitamins down by way of our soil, and we now have obtained some fairly good practices in place to mitigate that,” he mentioned. “It is simply, how will we get all farmers to undertake that as fast as they’ll, inside the scope of the that they should work with?”