By Jake Wildman, Richard Syverson, Dan Glessing, Bob Worth and Warren Formo
As Minnesota farmers who irrigate crops, we’ve experienced a few tough growing seasons in a row – on the field with continually changing weather patterns and off the field with regulatory and legislative challenges. Both impact our ability to farm. Two recent Star Tribune articles mentioned these challenges – “Snow dents Minnesota drought” (Feb. 27) and “Farm water rules lenient, often abused,” (Feb. 19). But neither article told the whole story.
In 2020 abundant, heavy snow fell late in the spring and early in the fall. But 2021 brought the worst drought in decades. And 2022 brought both drought conditions and severe storms that wreaked havoc on houses, farm equipment, buildings and emerging crops. These conditions challenged all farmers across the state – operations that grow crops to support local farmers markets, livestock producers and production agriculture farmers.
We’ve learned to adapt to ever-changing weather conditions. Often, a farmer’s ability to irrigate means the difference between a nominal or normal crop and a crop that feeds millions. Every year, we carefully monitor the weather and adjust as needed. We use efficient irrigation systems and water management practices to preserve groundwater supplies and maintain farm profitability. We work with University of Minnesota researchers to continually improve the way we irrigate. And we only irrigate when needed; no farmer wants to deplete our state’s natural resources.
In fact, according to a recent Department of Natural Resources water usage report, data shows that irrigators across Minnesota use less water than is permitted 96% of the time.
Aquifer levels are not being depleted by Minnesota irrigators. The DNR has maintained monitoring wells in primary irrigation districts since the 1970s. The data they provide, which is publicly available, shows that Minnesota aquifers are healthy, recharging to their normal static level 30-60 days after irrigating has stopped for the season.
That’s why we were so surprised to see the introduction of two bills at the Capitol.
HF1680 expands the DNR’s authority to revoke appropriation permits through broad and vague language at any time. HF 1873 expands DNR’s enforcement authority to issue greater fines, which include civil penalties to water appropriation permit holders. Both bills were developed quietly and without any input from the agriculture industry.
In Minnesota, agricultural production and processing industries rank second in the gross state product, generating more than $112 billion annually in total economic impact and supporting more than 431,000 jobs. Irrigation on over 750,000 acres helps farmers grow many crops in which Minnesota ranks in the Top 10 producers nationally, including corn, sugar beets, peas, soybeans, potatoes, canola, wheat, alfalfa and horticulture.
When the 2021 drought was underway, some government support was offered to farmers. Cattle grazing was allowed on conservation lands when feed had all but dried up, and grant programs were created to manage financial constraints.
Farmers can adapt to the conditions Mother Nature provides. But we need support in another way from public officials: recognition of the impact that agriculture has on our state and an environment to successfully farm without undue interference. In the past few years, irrigators have been repeatedly subject to inefficient and costly permit processes, facing roadblocks when transferring appropriation permits through land sale sand encountering well interference investigations with incomplete data considerations.
In the coming weeks, we will be visiting with legislators and agency officials to advocate not only for our right to irrigate, but for our ability to continue feeding Minnesota, America and the world.
Jake Wildman is president, Irrigators Association of Minnesota. Richard Syverson is president, Minnesota Corn Growers Association. Dan Glessing is president, Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation. Bob Worth is president, Minnesota Soybean Growers Association. Warren Formo is executive director, Minnesota Agricultural Water Resource Center.