Small farmers challenge conventional agriculture in Pineland Sands

A woman holds large carrots as she kneels in a garden on a farm.
Kathy Connell holds some carrots freshly pulled from her large garden in rural Sebeka, Minn., on Tuesday. She joined a legal appeal of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' decision not to require an environmental impact study for a neighboring farmer who is irrigating his land to raise crops.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

It’s hard to see how anyone could coax anything green from this sandy patch of Minnesota soil. But Kathy Connell can. 

Most of the vegetables have already been harvested from her vast garden, but a few plump watermelons and cucumbers still peek out from beneath the leaves.

Farming this dry patch of rural Wadena County takes patience, dedication — and water.

"It is just sand. The only thing that really grows well on it are pine trees,” Connell said. “You have to restore and add additional organic matter. You have to apply water, because three days without rain are a drought on this sand."

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On these 2 acres of land, Connell produced organic vegetables that she sold for years at farmers' markets and whole foods stores. At 74, she's scaling back and now mainly grows vegetables for her own family. She remains a staunch advocate for growing as much of your own food as possible.

"I think it makes food sacred to you then,” she said. “I think you begin to understand the connection between how everything, every system on this planet works."

A woman and dog walks down a dirt road toward a house.
Kathy Connell walks with her dog toward her house in rural Sebeka, Minn., where she raises organic vegetables and seeds. Connell said she worries about the future of the land and the impact of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. "We do have to think about a different kind of agriculture," she said.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

Outside of the ring of pine trees that circles Connell's land, an entirely different type of agriculture has been reshaping the countryside in north-central Minnesota. Over the past few decades, thousands of acres of pine forests have been converted to potatoes and other row crops, which need lots of water and fertilizer. 

One farmer's plans to irrigate his land to grow crops has triggered a legal challenge by organic farmers and clean water advocates. They say traditional agriculture is not a good fit for the sandy soil, and they envision a different way of farming in this region known as the Pineland Sands, which covers parts of Wadena, Cass, Becker and Hubbard counties.

Small pine trees at the edge of a field.
Pine trees stand at the edge of an irrigated farm field outside of Park Rapids, Minn. on Tuesday. Large-scale conversion of forests to crop farms in the Pineland Sands region of north-central Minnesota in recent decades has raised concerns about the impacts on water and climate.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

Down the road from Connell is Tim Nolte's cattle farm. Nolte's plan to pump groundwater to irrigate about 300 acres set off the latest battle over farming in the Pineland Sands.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources required Nolte to complete an environmental assessment worksheet outlining the potential impacts of his irrigation plan before it would issue the groundwater permits. 

In June, the DNR decided to not order a more in-depth environmental impact study. It decided that any potential impacts from the irrigation plan were minimal or could be managed through regulations. 

Connell joined an appeal of the department’s decision led by the Environmental Working Group and other clean water advocacy organizations.

They're worried that the Fargo, N.D.-based company R.D. Offutt, which sold Nolte the land, plans to lease it to expand its potato-growing efforts in the region.

Nolte said he's using his land to grow corn and sorghum. Tara May, a spokesperson for R.D. Offutt, said the company has no current agreement with Nolte. She said the company is not seeking additional land in the Pineland Sands, with the exception of land swaps that allow crop rotation.

A large irrigation system in a field.
An irrigation system stands in a field outside of Menahga, Minn., on Tuesday.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

May said R.D. Offutt is constantly looking for ways to improve its farming operations, including rotating crops, reducing tillage and fertilizer use and planting cover crops.

Still, organic farmers and clean water advocates say it's time for a broad study of the impacts of conventional farming in this region. They're worried that it's causing rising nitrate levels in groundwater, and that overpumping could cause wells to run dry. 

Tests have found more than 10 percent of the private wells in some area townships have nitrate levels above the state health standard for drinking water.

"We need to change how we live up here, and industrial agriculture needs to change how it lives up here,” said activist and sustainable farmer Winona LaDuke, who lives near the village of Pine Point on the White Earth Reservation, which borders the Pineland Sands. 

Since moving to the area in 1981, LaDuke said she’s witnessed significant changes.

"It's just more and more things getting cut, and more and more trees disappearing, and more and more stuff going in the water,” she said. 

LaDuke plans to file a “friend of the court” brief on behalf of her organization, Honor the Earth, and Pine Point tribal community members, in support of those appealing the DNR's decision.

So does Ryan Pesch, who grows organic commercial vegetables east of Pelican Rapids, and is also a University of Minnesota Extension educator. Pesch said he's standing up for small organic farmers whose livelihood is threatened by pesticide drifting from large farms.

“We're doing 5 acres of production, in comparison to the 1,200 acres of potatoes over there. That seems like this tiny little blip of a farm,” Pesch said. But he said farmers like himself are making a decent living by growing small plots of vegetables — sometimes a more lucrative living than trying to grow hundreds of acres of commodities like potatoes or corn.

Pesch, LaDuke and others will go on record with their concerns in amicus briefs they'll submit to the Minnesota Court of Appeals this fall. The DNR said it expects a decision on the appeal sometime next year.