The Buffer Strip Controversy…Debunked.

Recently, Governor Dayton announced that he will ask the Minnesota Legislature to put into law, a requirement of a 50 foot buffer zone along streams, wetlands, and lakes. Why? He thinks that this will boost the dwindling pheasant population in Minnesota.

Gov. Dayton has cited lower participation in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) by farmers, and that having a direct effect on the pheasant population. What Governor Dayton fails to mention, is that federally, the number of acres allowed into the CRP program has been decreased due to funding. That means that some farmers went to reapply their acres into the program, and were denied because only so many acres are allowed. Governor Dayton also fails to mention that there is an application process for land to go into CRP and if your land doesn’t fit the criteria put forth by the NRCS/USDA, they can deny your application. It doesn’t mean that farmers don’t want to sign up for the program (many find it a waste to farm marginal ground) it is that they are being denied due to funding or their acres not fitting what The government wants in terms of land. Also, there is a large misconception that CRP is a “farmer only” program. Many landowners, hunters, and wildlife enthusiasts have their land in the CRP program as well.

In the 2008 bill, the acres were capped at 32 million. However, with the passage of the 2014 farm bill, 2014 was reduced to 27.5 million acres being allowed to enroll. In 2015, that number drops to 26 million. 2016, 25 million acres and 2017-2018 at 24 million acres. Currently, 27 million acres are enrolled into the CRP program, and that means that at least 1 million acres will be removed from the program or denied reenrollment in 2015. This also means no new enrollment of additional acres over the cap, so essentially eliminating farmers and private land owner’s ability to rent their land back to the government for wildlife habitat.

For Minnesota, the focus on CRP land for our government is wetland habitat – not exactly pheasant friendly. Majority of the applications have to be directly tied to wetland and wildlife that would directly benefit from wetlands. Think ducks, geese, cormorants, swans, heron, etc. Pheasants prefer upland habitat and prairie.

There is also a law already in place for agricultural ground in terms of buffer zones. According to state law, local government is responsible for the administration and enforcement of shoreland management controls. That is an important piece of information because the water issues from county to county vary greatly. Local governments are allowed to adopt their own shoreland protection rules (with commissioner’s approval) that may differ from state law but can account for the unique needs of the watershed rather than the one-size-fits-all approach. Part of this is where land has been part of an urban use for many years (think of Lake Minnetonka for example), if there are businesses along these shorelands (think Northfield, Minnesota), counties with topography or vegetation that would make minimum state standards impractical (think bluff country), or shorelands that are managed under other land resource management programs that have been authorized by state or federal legislation that have goals compatible with Minnesota law (think alternatives with the DNR or the Discovery Farms program).

Note the buffer strip in the side of the photo on another piece of land we farm.

Note the buffer strip in the side of the photo on another piece of land we farm.

There aren’t easy ways to avoid buffer zones. Everything has to be evaluated, approved or part of another law. Existing shoreland rules require a 50 foot buffer in shoreland areas already, which means 50 feet of permanent vegetation must be maintained. Agricultural use within that 50 feet may be allowed only if the farmer has an approved conservation plan with their local soil and water conservation district or the U.S. Soil Conservation Service. Part of that approved conservation plan includes responsible use of fertilizer and crop protection products, and appropriate set-backs for manure application to ensure proper stewardship of water resources.

Now, how do all these laws and restrictions apply? According to state law they apply to all watercourses intrastate and interstate where the drainage area is over 2 square miles, but if the commissioner finds any other watercourse having a drainage area under 2 miles and with a significant flood hazard, the laws and restrictions apply as well.

Now, drainage ditches are a little different. Many counties have a network of drainage ditches serving a multitude of purposes from draining water from agricultural land to ensuring that water runs off of roadways or draining areas that businesses and homes are built on. The current proposal would more than triple current buffer laws on public drainage ditches – notice that is public – not private. This means this could affect every homeowner out there that has a public drainage ditch in the back of their property.

Currently, the law states that public drainage ditches have to have a buffer strip of 16.5 feet. However, that buffer strip doesn’t necessarily have to be in place until a redetermination of benefits of the public drainage ditch is made by the county. This is why our state should focus on funding our local soil and water conservation offices at the proper level, so they can complete these redetermination of benefits. This is probably the biggest misconception that people don’t understand about current law – the ditch has to go through the redetermination before a person actually has to put the 16.5 foot buffer strip in place. That being said, I don’t know many people who farm up to a drainage ditch without leaving at least 10-15 feet of vegetation already. Also, another thing to understand about how drainage ditches are constructed is that they have a berm up on the sides, or a raised bank, – that means the water doesn’t run down directly into them. The water has to go through the soil, filtering it.


Can you see the lake behind those trees? That's because there is way more than a 50 foot buffer strip in place here on a piece of land we farm next to a lake.

Can you see the lake behind those trees? That’s because there is way more than a 50 foot buffer strip in place here on a piece of land we farm next to a lake.

There are many other issues with this proposed law. Fines can range up to $20,000, and it is up to the DNR to decide whether requirements are met. Who is going to pay for additional enforcement and DNR? This is also why I strongly urge local control is better – work with your local soil and water conservation district, your NRCS office, etc. They know much more about the soil types, the issues your county faces, etc. than the DNR.

This also means that we have a state agency, the DNR, taking control of private land, your land, without compensation, which violates private property rights. This is especially important. If landowners, not just farmers, can’t plan for the future, make decisions about their property or even appeal for their land, it affects your rights as a property owner. The DNR can and will say what you can or can’t do on your land, without reimbursement or any real reason why as the 50 foot buffer is an arbitrary number, not scientifically justified or studied.

Yes, everyone wants clean water, and honestly, probably farmers more than most because we make our living off of that water. We depend on it every single day for our livelihood. Our kids drink from the same wells on our property. We shower in it, we swim in it, we give our livestock it. But this isn’t about clean water. This isn’t even about pheasant habitat (sorry MN Pheasants Forever – your own website even says that buffer strips are not the best habitat for pheasants as it creates a smorgasbord for predators to come along and eat their nests!) At the end of the day, this is about property rights.

If you don’t understand the many different things farmers are currently doing to protect water, wildlife habitat and soil, please ASK! This is why things like precision agriculture and variable rate application are so important to farmers. This is why we tile, allowing soil to filter water and eliminating nutrient run-off and soil loss. This is why farmers install buffer strips or grass waterways on their land. This is why farmers put in terraces, not only to hold soil back, but to create spots for wildlife to nest and live from the pheasants to rabbits to fox. Farmers often plant cover crops to hold in soil and create a filter as snow melts in the winter. Farmers practice strip tillage or no tillage. They plant crops like hay and alfalfa in areas that might need a denser coverage. Often, the water management practices put in place take time to see results, sometimes over 50 years. Farmers are doing many different things every single day on their farms, but what works for one farm, might not work for another. This is why a “one size fits all 50 foot strip” is not the answer.




  1. Good article.. We had CRP along a ditch that was not renewed.. it didn’t meet the criteria..
    The head of the soil and water spoke at the capital yesterday ,. the part I heard he didn’t ask for anymore funding for this .. But I did not hear all the committee meetings..
    One legislator did mention the re determination issue in a note back to me..
    contact your legislator now.. and contact the legislators on the committees this will go to.
    I think the hunting groups will find that this is not the best habitat for birds and bunnies , although better than none.. if this is forced on farmers and others I am pretty sure the No trespassing NO hunting signs will be going up.
    most farmers will agree with the rod of sod if compensated but 50 foot why not 2 rods of sod? it makes not sense..
    thank you for the article..

  2. Don’t get me wrong i’m not saying this article is incorrect on everything. Where it says pheasants prefer upland isn’t totally true. Pheasants are found along rivers and stream pretty often as along as there is habitat to hide. They even are found in wetlands in the fall.

    1. Hi Derek,
      I wasn’t saying that they aren’t found along rivers and streams – however ideal habitat for a pheasant is not this type of landscape. Preferred pheasant habitat is an upland/prairie grass. Just wanted to clarify since
      I think you missed the word “prefer” before habitat in the story, which doesn’t necessarily mean “only.” Thanks!

  3. The main reason for buffer strips isn’t about pheasants, it’s about protecting Minnesota’s water. A fringe benefit of buffer strips is that they also provide some wildlife habitat for pheasants, songbirds, butterflies, pollinating insects, etc., but the real intent is to clean up the water. Agricultural runoff in southern Minnesota is the single biggest problem we have with water pollution in the state. Consider the recent study of streams there. “The study assessed 93 of 181 stream sections in four watersheds for aquatic life or aquatic recreation. Of these, only three were considered fully supporting of aquatic life, and one fully supporting of aquatic recreation. Fifty three sections were non-supporting of aquatic life and 31 non-supporting of aquatic recreation.”

    Of course, no one would intentionally want to harm the environment, but obviously something needs to be done to help it.

    1. Hi Kurt,
      The main reason these bills are even being introduced, yes is because of pheasant habitat. The buffer strip and Dayton’s proposal came out of the Pheasant Summit that took place in Marshall a few months ago. So yes, that was the main reason for it before it got turned into a water quality issue.
      If you read the post, you would have picked up on that I am not against water quality, in fact I am a huge proponent of it because I need it in order to make a livelihood every single day and live off the land. I just ask that a “one answer fits all” approach is not the way to do it. Check out Carolyn’s post for some of the many things farmers are currently doing
      I also stated multiple times, if our Governor would just fund out SWCD’s where they need to be, many of the issues would be solved – like enforcement of the 1 rod buffer strip rule for instance.
      Yes, I have actually gone through the 298 pages of the document which was released by the MN PCA. Most of their data was taken after large flooding issues last spring when no matter what you do, no system can handle 20 inches of rain in a week. Also, 3 of the watersheds were actually more impacted by livestock grazing and pasture than the traditional row crops that everyone blames for water issues. They also mention the very large number of failing or non-compliant septic tanks in those 4 watersheds which are making a large contribution to the issue.
      Yes, it does need to start somewhere and it has – check out Discovery Farms for instance or Green Star. Things take time for data to be compiled over a long range to really see a difference, and as my post stated, if we would fund our SWCD’s where they need to be rather than try and implement something else on top of things that already aren’t funded enough that would be a much better place to start. They at least recognize that a one size fits all approach is not the answer.

  4. I’m confused by one small statement in your final paragraph: “This is why we tile, allowing soil to filter water and eliminating nutrient run-off and soil loss.”
    I’ve always thought of drain tile as the opposite of allowing soil to filter the water. Except for the extreme weather events that you noted earlier, I would argue that the water filtering all the way through the soil would be of higher quality than the water coming out of the tile pipe. And I think any soil conservation you get from drain tile preventing water-borne erosion is countered by having drier soils blowing away in the wind.
    But in any case, a one-size-fits-all 50-foot buffer strip idea is just ridiculous…

    1. It’s a common misconception that people have regarding tiled fields. But the tile actually pulls the water down usually anywhere from 4-10 feet, sometimes more depending on where the farmer puts the tile in depth wise. This means the water going into the tile is filtered through the soil. Most people are confused by tile inlets which are different – and if you read my other blog posts on drainage, we have removed majority of our tile inlets after finding the most issues there. If you don’t tile – you lose the nutrients and soil due to direct run-off. That is where the most issues are. It also depends on what part of MN you are in. We don’t have drier soils here – we are wet, thick black dirt compared to somewhere like up north where it’s sandier which again, is why no “one size fits all” ever works.

  5. As a farmer and an SWCD employee, If we can simply enforce the current buffer law along with NRCS enforcing HEL, that would be a start. The bigger problem I see is how the hydrology on our landscape is being changed. We have become better plumbers (tiling – which if done responsibly is not bad). I think it all goes back to what do we view as good farming practices and what is actually happening on the landscape. By now most understand we get 2/3 of our rain from April – June. However what has recently changed is the extreme rainfall events. I tell my Dad every year, let’s not get caught with our pants down, lets prepare our land to deal with high rainfall amounts in a short periods. We can’t control the rising costs of seed/fertilizer/gas/land rent, or when it rains, but we can do a better job preparing our farm for the worst that Mother Natural will throw at us from year to year.

    Honestly, we don’t have people jumping to put conservation practices like water & sediment control structures in, they come in for land clearing requests (1026 request). The voluntary effort is not working, not that I want more regulations, I feel we have enough. We just need to enforce the laws on the books already and people need to be more honest with what is actually happening on the landscape.

    Again, I appreciate you putting this document together, I agree with some of your comments, but we need to come together and not be divided articles in the Star Tribune, politicians, and bureaucrats. One size doesn’t fit all, but remember who is exempted from the Clean Water Act of 1972, agriculture. We hear about this a lot, “only industry that does not need to regulate its discharge water”…..

    1. I agree – I think we need to enforce current policy, which is why I am advocating for actually funding our SWCD’s where they need to be funded, especially so the redetermination of benefits can be made. I stated that multiple times in my blog post. I find it quite sad that for many of our SWCD’s to do this, they had to apply for grant money. I think the Governor is starting to realize that 50 feet and a one size fits all is not the answer, and this coming from a pheasant perspective when he is an avid pheasant hunter, was probably not the best way to go about starting this conversation.
      You can’t really prepare for 12 inches of rain in one day – like you said, more extreme weather events than ever before, so we need to be able to look at all the options farmers can and are currently using. And I would venture to say that agriculture in Minnesota is not exempt from water rules even though the 1972 act does leave ag as an exemption for requiring a permit- MN has some of the strictest rules when it comes to water and agriculture from manure application to shoreland buffers to wetland conservation. Most people never even knew there was a 16.5 foot buffer strip requirement at present for our state.

      1. We appreciate your support for funding. We hear there is strong support for Senate File 1158 (Sparks)/House File 1327 (Torkelson). This bill would provide some funding to Minnesota’s SWCDs which would help.

        From a person working on the ground I can tell you, sure we have laws, but local politics drives enforcement or lake of enforcement with wetlands and manure.

        Current example, we have a producer out of compliance with his feedlot permit. We met with the producer, gave him options for designs, possible funding, he said no. Why does he say no you ask? He says “I can tell you five more feedlots out of compliance within 5 miles of my farm, why should I fix mine”. Ok, we tell the feedlot person, he/she replays back he/she wants to wait to do anything because the producer has been talking to a county commissioner (her boss). So that producer will continue to be out of compliance until: county commissioner doesn’t get re-elected or feedlot person pushes the farmer to get into compliance. Guess which one happens more often than not. We can get all the funding in the world from NRCS or BWSR to fix feedlots, but if the producer is not pushed by the feedlot officer who in turn doesn’t want to lose their job, nothing happens. You see the issue? It’s not that the producer is a bad guy, could be a great person, just bad at managing his manure or runoff from his farm site.

        Under the MN Wetland Conservation Act (Wetland Conservation Act Rules Chapter 8420, pg. 36 – 39) there are numerous exemptions that allow the drainage of many seasonally flooded basins for agriculture. Although the NRCS does regulate tile drainage, tile maintenance is common practice and is nearly always approved via the 1026 request. Non-functioning concrete and clay tile that may not have been working since the turn of the century is now being replaced with new and improved tile systems that are shedding large quantities of water downstream making streams become flashy. We need storage in the watershed and from desktop or car window, we are losing that storage.

        We just need to have an honest conversation about what we describe as good farming practices.

  6. We’ve had the CP39 form since 2008. Crow River Watershed District has been using it, and Hawk Creek Watershed District has not used it in Kandiyohi County. The SWCD will not fund it.

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