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Northern Minnesota potato wars may have hit a turning point

An irrigation system sprays water on a potato field on Monday, July 30, south of the Lamb Weston/RDO Frozen plant in Park Rapids. Robin Fish / Forum News Service1 / 3
R.D. Offut Farms is offering help for its harvest season this fall. Paula Quam / Forum News Service2 / 3
An irrigated potato field is seen near Perham in north-central Minnesota. Paula Quam / Forum News Service3 / 3

PARK RAPIDS, Minn.—Maybe it's just a breather, but the long-simmering controversy between the R.D. Offutt Farms' potato field expansion project and environmentalists concerned about groundwater and lake pollution may have come to an end or at least reached a turning point.

After Minnesota's Department of Natural Resources gave a two-week notice last week that the Fargo-based company's irrigation water well permits in some of the eight northern Minnesota counties it operates in would require an environmental study, the company announced Wednesday, Aug. 1, that it has withdrawn its request for the final three permits.

The company had originally, years ago, asked for many more permits when it first announced its expansion plans, but their requests slowly dwindled.

"After a lot of discussions, we've decided to withdraw all (the last) three permits," said company spokesman Mark Dickerson about the decision he said was made on Monday.

Company officials didn't want to comment much more about the decision, although Dickerson provided a statement that said the company "has farmed in Minnesota for more than 50 years and maintains positive working relationships with local, county, and state officials. We are and will remain active participants in efforts to protect the natural resources of the state and the quality of life in the communities where our team members live and work."

Although it's been in operation all of those years, the company and its back-and-forth with environmentalists and some residents in the pine forests of northwestern and north-central Minnesota started to intensify after the nation's largest potato producer began buying up land in 2011.

The company bought about 7,800 acres from the Potlach Corp. which had cleared much of the land that had once been timberlands. But without more irrigation permits, Offutt has been unable to farm some of that land.

Offutt is one of the region's biggest operators, with about a third of the company's 60,000 acres of irrigated potatoes nationwide grown on nine farms in Minnesota. It also has operations in North Dakota and five other states with processing plants in four states, including a plant in Park Rapids.

Minnesota's DNR, which first approved, then rejected a similar environmental worksheet assessment about three years ago for Offutt, sent the notification letter last week to Offutt that an environmental assessment worksheet would be needed before wells could be drilled in the sandy soils that need water to be productive.

Environmental groups and residents of the region they call the Pineland Sands said that call for a study was a win as they continue their protests because of concerns about groundwater contamination, deforestation and aquifer draining because of irrigation systems and chemicals used on the fields.

The DNR had planned to start work on it the study Aug. 6 with a decision on whether to advance into a much more extensive Environmental Impact Statement within six to nine months, according to assistant DNR commissioner Barbara Naramore.

That EIS is what the protesters in the counties had wanted.

"That's what we are aiming for," said Mike Tauber of Hackensack in Hubbard County.

He led the citizen petition drive asking for the environmental study and got 115 citizens to sign the petition, which only needed 100 names to make the request to the DNR.

Tauber said a similar petition by a blogging group called Toxic Taters had more than 700 names three years ago when it was eventually rejected by Naramore and her team of experts.

Tauber believes the "chemical train" caused by farmland fertilizers and pesticides that he said is affecting the pine forest region is something that eventually will affect the entire nation.

Not just Offutt

Tauber, who didn't return attempts to contact him after Offutt made its decision by press time, said the battle is not necessarily against just the company but also other producers in the area who he believes can alter the way they farm to help prevent further degradation of groundwater, lakes and forest areas where much of Minnesota recreates in the summer in what some people in the region call their "little slice of heaven."

Tauber's arguments are that since the 1960s, farmers have turned to chemical farming to help their initiatives. However, what was not understood as a society 50 years ago was that chemical farming is "actually destroying our land and ourselves."

"It's not the average farmer's fault that they are trapped in the chemical intensive agriculture," Tauber said. "That's something that the industry has promoted and claimed to be safe for a long time, and so we dug ourselves a big hole in a lot of cases."

He said "the quickest way off the chemical train that industrial ag is pushing is to convert to organic growing methods. There are lots of large scale organic growers and methods that make chemical intensive agriculture unnecessary now."

New study

Meanwhile, Minnesota Department of Agriculture official Bruce Montgomery, said in what is a first in the state, and possibly in the nation, they have started working with Offutt Farms to study groundwater effects from irrigated agriculture during the first year of production in a potato field that used to be forestland just northeast of Staples in Cass County.

Montgomery also said Offutt's land it bought from Potlach for its expansion was in really sparsely populated areas and that the company planned to use much of it in a crop rotation effort anyway.

"Some of this land was farmed in the 20s and 30s but farmers determined there was not enough water so it was abandoned," Montgomery said. As forests grew, he said they called these parcels of land "pine plantations."

In the end, Tauber said "when people understand what's going on, they are going to drive the demand for healthier food," Tauber said. "They're going to drive the demand for stopping the chemical train."

In the meantime, Offutt and others continue to work on improving farming practices, said Montgomery.

With the "water quality still outstanding" among many farm fields in northern Minnesota, Montgomery said "we want to keep it that way."