PRIOR LAKE, Minn. - Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson is on his last lap as the state's top ag official, pushing to the end for the water protection priorities of his boss, Gov. Mark Dayton.
"I'm in, I'm hooked," said Frederickson, 74, in an interview after speaking at the recent Minnesota Grain & Feed Association in Prior Lake. "I want to make the case to Minnesota agriculture that you should get ahead of this issue and not behind it."
Frederickson acknowledged Dayton has presented policies that often have been tough to sell to farmers who fear expensive regulation without compensation. He was with the governor in Marshall in December 2014 when the governor first talked about imposing 50-foot buffer strips on every public body of water in Minnesota and a 16.5-foot buffer on every judicial or county ditch.
"There's probably 99 percent compliance on public waters," Frederickson said of the buffer concept. "As we move into next year the whole issue becomes judicial or county ditches. I think everyone out there understands it's just good practice to have a buffer on those county ditches. You lose too much soil on them" without vegetative buffers.
Now, the state is moving to nitrogen management. The state is guided by 103H, the Groundwater Protection Act, passed in 1989. Frederickson was in the Senate and voted for the bill. The executive branch has had rule-promulgation authority in the statute for 29 years but hasn't done it until this year.
The state uses Natural Resource Conservation Service soil map data to indicate where the coarse soils are.
"Where there's coarse soil, you shouldn't be applying fall-applied fertilizer application of nitrogen fertilizer, whether in the form of urea of anhydrous ammonia," Frederickson said.
The so-called "central sands" area northwest of the Minneapolis area is where these soils start, down to southeastern Minnesota, where the so-called "karst" soils are coarse and likely for nitrogen leaching, or penetration.
Minnesota is a Mississippi River headwaters state, so there is an obligation to take care of water. The rule-making process will probably run through December. There were 17 meetings with 1,500 people last year.
"They were upset," Frederickson said of some of the participants.
The state's tool to measure electrical conductivity in soils went five feet deep.
"When you go beyond that in the Lake Agassiz glacial lake bed, for example, there's 150 feet of blue or yellow clay below that, so there is relatively limited leaching into groundwater," he said. "We made a decision for geology and also on climate for northwest Minnesota." Similar exemptions have been made for northeast Minnesota where there is little crop agriculture.
He said the Legislature is considering bills that would remove the state's rulemaking authority on the issue. "I think it's bad government to move rulemaking into the legislative branch," Frederickson said.
The state has tested just over 22,000 rural wells and about 9.8 percent exceed 10 parts per million for nitrates, which is the drinking water standard. Some excessive readings are associated with old livestock feedlots or farmsteads.
"Common sense would say, 'Look, if it's been continuous row-cropped for years and years, the odds are" that it's "human-caused," Frederickson said.
Frederickson has had a richly varied career in agricultural and public life.
He taught school before going home to the farm in Swift County. He farmed for more than 24 years. He also served two terms in the Minnesota state Senate, where he was a key author of ethanol mandate laws that formed the basis of national renewable fuels standards. He spent 10 years years as Minnesota Farmers Union president. In 2002 he was elected National Farmers Union president. He served two terms for six years, then went to work four years on the staff of U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.
"Then, the governor asked me to come over to the department seven years ago," he said.
And when he's done? Unless he "flunks retirement" again, Frederickson will be on the water. He has restored a 1959 Penn Yan Magellan wooden motor boat and plans to take it on a solo cruise down the Mississippi River from Minnesota to New Orleans.
"I'll be the captain of my own ship," he said, smiling.