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Nov. 1 buffer deadline likely to come and go for many Minn. farmers

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Jerry Jennissen inspects a county ditch with son in-law Lucas Sjostrom.
Jerry Jennissen inspected a county drainage ditch with his son in-law Lucas Sjostrom in September 2016. The two farmers were walking along a 40-foot wide buffer strip that Jennissen had installed back in 2003 on his Brooten, Minn.-area farm.
Courtesy of the Environmental Initiative 2016

Wet conditions across much of the state are making it difficult for farmers to comply with a Thursday deadline to plant buffer strips along their fields' drainage ditches. 

The November deadline is the second phase of implementing the buffer law, which requires strips of perennial vegetation to help filter fertilizer and other contaminants from water that runs from farm fields into ditches. 

Buffers along public waters, rivers and lakes were set to be completed by last November, but farmers could apply for a one-year waiver. State and county officials say it's likely some of the buffers that make up the second phase of implementation, along ditches, won't be planted until next spring. 

According to the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, nearly 99 percent of public waters comply with the state buffer law and about 80 percent of ditches are in compliance. Since there are substantially more miles of public waters than ditches, the overall compliance rate is estimated to be just shy of 96 percent.  

"I think we're making good progress. It is a really big state; 96 percent compliance sounds cool but quite frankly that means there's still a fair amount of work that needs to happen," said Tom Gile, buffers and soil loss operations supervisor for the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Conservation. 

The agency doesn't have specific numbers, Gile said but it's likely there are several thousand land parcels that still need to come into compliance with the buffer rule.  But he said the state wants to give farmers every opportunity to comply voluntarily before it imposes any financial penalties.

Seventy-five counties across the state opted to handle buffer enforcement themselves — and many have adopted ordinances that give landowners a grace period to comply with the buffer law, as long as they have a plan in place. 

A dozen of those counties have sent landowners corrective notices regarding public waters that are not in compliance with the buffer law, Gile said.

Redwood County environmental director Scott Wold expects many landowners to miss the Thursday buffer deadline because of wet conditions. The areas around much of the 1,040 miles of buffer strips that needed to be planted along ditches in the county were under water for much of the summer.

"I'm not going to deem someone noncompliant if they didn't seed something that was either under water or basically soupy mud," Wold said.

Redwood County gives landowners 11 months to correct a noncompliant buffer before it imposes any financial penalty. Many counties also have a a grace period in which farmers can comply with the law. 

Gile said the state also believes it's reasonable to allow buffers to be completed next spring, as long as farmers have a plan in place.  

But, he warned: "If next year you have corn, beans, sugar beets, whatever it may be in the buffer area when you had an opportunity this fall and the spring to put it in, that might be a tough one to to kind of work through."

Local officials in several counties say most farmers are at least creating a plan, even if they can't meet the November deadline. 

But after Thursday, many farmers are likely to get a letter telling them they are not in compliance with the buffer law. 

"There might be some tough conversations with individuals who are going to be frustrated that they're receiving a letter when they had no ability to get out there and and complete the work," Wold said. "But if they let us know what they're going to do in their situation, we can explain to them that there's an 11-month period and they have plenty of time to come into compliance without facing any penalty." 

Wold is not aware of anyone in his county refusing to comply with the buffer law. 

"You know, I've heard some rumblings," he said. "But I haven't had any that we have followed up on yet that an individual has said, 'I am just not doing that.' Most folks that I've talked to, even if they're very mad about it, are understanding that at this point it's just kind of the way it is."

Because counties have limited staff to inspect sites, it could take months to confirm all of the required buffers are in place.

Wold says Redwood County will use aerial photographs taken sometime next year to check buffer compliance.