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.
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.
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.