Farmers do have options as buffer deadline closes in

PROTECTING WATERWAYS — This photo taken in southeastern Minnesota shows an example of a buffer strip between a corn field and a stream. (Photo courtesy BWSR)

By Per Peterson

Neither farmers nor conservationists can deny the controversy sparked by Gov. Mark Dayton’s new buffer initiative, designed to protect the state’s waterways and ditches from phosphorus, nitrogen and sediment. Even after Dayton last year reluctantly pulled back a bit on the law to eliminate so-called private ditches from the legislation, the buffer law has continued to be on the tips of many people’s tongues, and not all of the talk has been positive.
Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR) Buffers and Soil Erosion Program Coordinator Tom Gile said Dayton’s plan received a lot of pushback when it was introduced because many farmers knew they were already doing all they could to help their own soil and, in turn, public waterways.
“There were a lot of perceptions when it was introduced,” Gile said. “A lot of people were doing what they needed to do. The ag community maybe doesn’t like (the buffer law), and they’re not super-excited about it, but they really just want to know what they have to do to move on.”
With the deadline for compliance for public waters approaching (Nov. 1) Matt Surprenant, who farms corn and soybeans southwest of Tracy, said there continues to be a misconception that farmers, in general, aren’t concerned about the state’s quality of water.
“Most of us are,” he said. “We were already doing things like no till and cover crops; maybe we weren’t doing enough, but we are certainly trying. I think the perception out there is that we aren’t doing anything, but we’re trying to be proactive. That’s why things like cover crops are taking off.”
Surprenant, like most other farmers, would’ve liked to see more local control when it comes to enforcing the buffer law.
“I think there are places that need buffers, and there are places that don’t probably need 50 feet” Surprenant said. “I think the thing maybe farmers didn’t like about it was that it is a blanket law covering everyone, that (the state) didn’t use common sense or have someone local look at someone’s land — does it need 50 feet? Some places have land that slopes up to waterways, so there’s no need for a 50-foot buffer.”
In the wake of public comment and as an effort to work with farmers instead of against them, the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources has implemented a tool that will provide farmers with alternative practices specific to their land that can be used in lieu of the prescribed vegetative buffer.

For more on this article, see this week’s Headlight-Herald.