SEBEKA, Minn. — The question looming over the standoff between concerns about the environment versus farming in the vulnerable Pinelands Sands area of north-central Minnesota is whether a compromise can be reached.
Or, perhaps, it could be just the two sides better understand each others' worries.
When many of the residents involved in the situation were asked about a compromise, the answers weren't easy to find.
The controversy has been brewing for almost a decade, and probably before that time, with strong words on each side of the equation as residents range from those with a desire to keep a better handle on the lake and forest country environment to farmers attempting to eke out a living in trying times.
For the Northern Water Alliance led by Mike Tauber of Backus, the answer to a compromise lies in regenerative farming practices that promote soil health and end the need for synthetic chemicals.
This method of farming, which many farmers across the Upper Midwest are already doing either fully or in some form, involves planting cover crops, using no-till methods, weaning the land off of chemical dependency, diversifying cropping, incorporating livestock into a farming operation and becoming intimate with the land.
Jim Etzel, a soil biologist who is a strong supporter of the water alliance, said the "only mineral you can grow is nitrogen."
That's why he is a big supporter of cover crops and no-till, which can reduce the need for pouring more nitrogen on crops. He said he knows of a Canadian farmer who grew 280-bushel corn with no-till and limited chemicals.
"I realize every farm is different, but it worked for him," Etzel said.
In another step forward, Tauber and cattleman and farmer Tim Nolte of Sebeka had a chance to talk in-depth during a field day Nolte held on his land.
It didn't go all that well.
Nolte has been upset with the water alliance's petition to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources over his irrigation permits and said it was "tough" to even invite the group to his gathering.
He said people don't realize the amount of money he is spending on answering an Environmental Assessment Worksheet that the petition required to assess how potato farming and other sources of nitrates are possibly causing a drinking water problem.
Tauber said after the gathering he felt like he was "run over" but believed that Nolte has his "heart in the right place" by the conservation work he has done and his plan to irrigate the land and not plant potatoes — which would require more chemicals to produce a crop.
"I want him to succeed," Tauber said about Nolte.
Nolte, on the other hand, said after the meeting that he wanted to communicate more with the water alliance and "didn't want to go behind their backs."
Another player in the story — who takes a lot of the heat in the Pineland Sands situation — is the Offutt Farms potato-growing operation that has about half of its 50,000-acre growing operation nationwide in the Pineland Sands and other parts of Minnesota. The company has fields in six other states and one potato-processing facility.
Offutt Farms Director of Communications Anne Struthers believes the company is also willing to communicate more.
“The people I work with are salt-of-the-earth farmers, and they believe in sitting down and talking things out," she said. "We’re all from the same place and we want to be good neighbors, so if people have concerns we’re usually pretty open to that."
In a written statement to Forum News Service, Struthers said the company is committed to "environmentally friendly agriculture."
Regarding farming practices, she said annual audits by the independent Potato Sustainability Initiative show the company has "consistently ranked in the top tier nationally and regionally for our sustainable farming practices."
The company also works with academic and industry research experts to "identify and implement practices to enhance and protect our precious natural resources," she said.
For example, this year the company worked with multiple potato growers in 10 states in a U.S. Department of Agriculture research project called "Enhancing Soil Health in U.S. Potato Production Systems" and are using a field near Park Rapids in the study.
She said the company also works on cover crops practices on their potato fields.
"We plow green manure cover crops into the soil during the growing season for increased soil biological activity to cycle and enhance soil nutrients and provide natural disease suppression," Struthers wrote in the statement.
In the fall, cover crops like rye are planted and grown through the winter to "sequester nitrogen in the plant, thereby reducing potential nitrate loss" and reducing soil erosion, according to Struthers.
In further explaining practices as far as managing crop inputs, she said a slow-release, environmentally safe nitrogen is used on Minnesota farms.
Tauber and Etzel, however, said the companies that sell some of the chemicals are only offering "Band-Aids."
Etzel has studied how much chemical is flushed into the groundwater when they are applied and the amount of organic matter in soil in many places in the Pineland Sands. The numbers aren't pretty, he said.
"What I'm finding is younger farmers are open to changes," said Etzel, who is a soil health consultant. "They agree that we need to disturb the soil less, diversify plantings, keep roots in the ground and worry about keeping pollinators."
As times get tough, mediation lawyer Steve Erickson of the Twin Cities who has a retirement lake home on Ten Mile Lake, also worries about changing mindsets, but in a different way. He worries about the mental health of farmers; they have the highest rate of suicide in any occupation as many are "caught in the gears of corporate farming."
"Farmers aren't the evil ones. They are just trying to make a living," said Erickson, who also believes a dialogue with farmers is part of the answer.
Tauber added that the politics of it all leads to "compromise, because that's what government does."
"There is no need to fight over who is right or wrong when it comes to keeping more of the forest alive or converting it to more farmland," Tauber said.
But what he wants to see is a way to join together and find solutions. In the end, Tauber believes the consumer will demand a safer food product, which affects how farmers produce crops.
If corporate farming operations, such as Offutt Farms, used regenerative farming, he said, they could go in his eyes from a "pariah to a messiah."
"There's a gigantic demand for real food. It's coming, and it can't be stopped," he said.