DNR uses new water regulations to stall deforestation

Field in Sebeka, Minn.
A Jan. 28, 2015 aerial photo shows an agricultural field, in Sebeka, Minn. The mixed pine forests of central Minnesota are rapidly being replaced with potato fields.
Brian Peterson | Star Tribune via AP

The state Department of Natural Resources took action Thursday to stall the conversion of more northern Minnesota forest land into potato fields.

North Dakota based R.D. Offutt, the nation's largest potato grower, has been buying and clearing forest land in Becker, Hubbard and Wadena Counties in recent years to make way for crops.

DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said the company already has bought 12,000 acres of forest land in north central Minnesota and could eventually convert as much as 42 square miles of forest to irrigated potato fields.

To slow the pine-to-potato trend, Landwehr turned to groundwater, a resource regulated by his agency.

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

Offutt's new farmland is in a naturally dry area and has to be irrigated. Potatoes take a lot of water. The company already has 32 irrigation permits and has asked the DNR for 54 more.

"Simply the magnitude," Landwehr said. "The number of permit applications we were seeing. At some point we said wow, this is an awful lot of permit applications. We need to take a broader look at it."

In the past, the DNR issued the 32 permits based on the individual project. Now, Landwehr said, each irrigation permit request will be run through a new environmental assessment worksheet.

The process takes into account environmental effects to forest and groundwater caused by Offutt's whole operation, rather than just one well.

Fertilizer from new potato fields has affected drinking water in cities such as Park Rapids, so the new DNR assessments have the potential to make irrigation more complicated for Offutt.

The worksheets will also take about a year to fill out, Landwehr said, and Offut will have to stop clearing forest land in the process.

An Offutt representative did not return calls for comment Thursday.