Many farmers comply with controversial buffer law


ST. PAUL — Most Minnesota farmers will meet the first deadline to put buffers between cropland and water.

Executive Director John John Jaschke of the state Board of Water and Soil Resources announced Thursday, Oct. 5, that 94 percent of parcels will have pollution protections in place by the Nov. 1 deadline. The Department of Natural Resources has provided maps showing land that must meet this year's deadline, land adjoining rivers, many creeks and some other water.

A 2018 deadline applies to public ditches, such as man made ones.

Even if landowners cannot meet the Nov. 1 deadline, if they can show they have a plan to comply with the buffer law they can be granted an extension until July 1.

Although the overall compliance rate looks high, areas with the most row crops show lower rates.

A soil and water resources agency map shows many counties in the west and south — where cropping is heaviest — have less than 80 percent compliance. Some counties with the most row crops have compliance less than 70 percent.

The buffer law was championed by Gov. Mark Dayton, who launched the effort as a way to clean Minnesota's water. Buffers, or alternative practices allowed by Jaschke's agency, filter out sediment and pollutants flowing off cropland.

Many farmers objected to Dayton's announcement, saying it came without him consulting with them. Their complaining resulted in 2016 changes to the law passed a year earlier.

Even with their complaints, many farmers already had installed buffers.

"Farmers grumble a little bit in my neighborhood, but at the end of the day they do the right thing," said Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson of Murdock. "We have an obligation, we are a headwaters state."

Of 530,000 parcels of land across the state, 30,000 still must be brought into compliance with the law, state officials said.

About 60 percent of the parcels fall under this year's deadline, and the rest must have buffers or approved alternatives next year.

Land falling under this year's law must have buffers averaging 50 feet wide, with a 30-food minimum. Next year's public ditch provision requires 16½-foot buffers.

Farmers may use buffer strips for hay or to graze animals.

Jaschke said the state is providing farmers with $8 million worth of aid. He said buffer strips cost about $300 an acre to plant.

Local governments, such as soil and water conservation districts, also are receiving some state aid to administer the program.

Where buffers are not needed or not practical, Jaschke said that his agency is working with farmers on alternative practices.

For instance, if a berm protects a body of water from getting pollution from most of a land parcel, a farmer may be allowed to install a water filtration system in areas where water flows from the berm into a water body.

Assistant Commissioner Sarah Strommen of the Department of Natural Resources said her agency received 4,500 comments about the map showing where buffers are needed, often farmers disputing 1980s data used to draw up the map. She said nearly 3,000 changes have been made to the map, although some farmers still may not agree with data used compile it.

Frederickson said the 2-year-old Minnesota Agriculture Water Certification Program is one way farmers can fulfill the buffer law requirements. The program certifies that farms meet existing pollution-control rules for 10 years, even if rules change.