Editor’s note: This is the second of a three-part series exploring the competing agricultural and environmental issues in the north-central region of Minnesota called the Pineland Sands. Read part one here.
This article was updated on Nov. 11, 2019, with information regarding rental prices per acre and gross returns on corn.
SEBEKA, Minn. — Tim Nolte farms with his wife and children near Sebeka in the northern woods of Wadena County, and he's seeking permits for irrigation, but even the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources admits he "unfortunately" was singled out for an environmental study.
As he faces what is called an Environmental Assessment Worksheet after a petition calling for an investigation of an irrigation well operation on his land was given final approval, he decided to hold a field day on his cattle and crop farm that is a mixture of trees, land cleared for pastures and fields and older cropland with the Redeye River running through it.
It's a similar picture to many farms across the Pineland Sands area in north-central Minnesota where forests and lakes cover miles and miles of the north country.
Nolte invited many stakeholders to the event, where he addressed about 30 people in one of his sheds and then took them on a bus tour to see firsthand what his operation was all about.
Clashes became apparent as people interrupted Nolte to ask questions or offer comments. Among those gathered in what is the poorest county in Minnesota were neighbors, friends, other farmers, family members, soil health experts, consultants, Northern Water Alliance leaders, representatives of the DNR, two government affairs specialists from the state Department of Agriculture and state Reps. John Poston, R-Lake Shore, and Steve Green, R-Fosston.
In his remarks, Nolte wondered why he was singled out.
"We like trees, grass and cattle, " he said, noting that his family has always been conservation minded. He also said they had never irrigated before. "So to have this petition come forward is extremely hurtful to us."
Nolte grew up with nearby timberland that was solidly in the Potlach Lumber Company's hands until former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura started making them pay property taxes, he said.
To help pay those taxes, Nolte said, Potlach began leasing the land to hunters, and the area became open to the public. Potlach also began selling some land in the region.
Nolte said he always wanted to buy Potlach's nearby 300 acres of land if it ever came up for sale. Then one day he heard through the grapevine that it had been sold to Offutt Farms or RDO as he refers to it.
"When we found out, we were extremely upset," he said.
However, Nolte was able to meet with Offutt representatives and purchase the property on a contract for deed.
"We don't know much about their farming practices but those people have been nothing but good to us," he said. "RDO has given this family a once-in-a-generation — or two generations — chance of a lifetime."
However, the question raised at the gathering was whether Nolte would cash rent the land back to RDO once the irrigation permit was approved to grow potatoes.
Neighbor Sharon Theusch, who said Nolte once talked to her about the chemicals that would be sprayed near her home if potatoes were grown, asked him plainly if that was the plan.
"It's a yes or no answer," said Theusch, who is extremely concerned about the pesticides and insecticides that could be used.
Nolte's response: he has to pay for the land somehow.
"Sustainable farming has to be sustainable financially, too," he said. "I'm not going to lie. If I have to cash rent to pay for the land, I will. But RDO won't be the first to call."
He suggested that neighbors would be interested first, although he said his plan — if he gets the permits — is to grow corn and hay.
Nolte said when he bought the property he kept hearing that it was an "RDO coverup" and that the company wanted to lease the land back to grow potatoes.
Mike Tauber, who heads the Northern Water Alliance that is fighting for more water and land protections, said he thinks Offutt Farms does do such land sales and lease backs so other farmers can be named on irrigation permits through the DNR.
"They are continuing to expand new acres every year. Their umbrella gets bigger. The little guys are labeled in the permits so on paper Offutt has no footprint in newer projects. They send the little guy to do the work," Tauber said.
Other supporters of the water alliance agree.
Marilyn McKnight, who operates a mediation service law firm with her partner Steven Erickson in the Twin Cities but has a lake cabin on Ten Mile Lake, said, "Farming is really tough. What's so sad here, though, is that small farms are not making it very well so this big guy comes around and he has a really good deal for you."
Erickson added that with a regular crop of soybeans or corn on those "farms in the sand," a farmer could make $400 an acre, but with potatoes it could increase the profit to $4,000 an acre.
So, he said, they offer the farmer $800 an acre on a lease to grow potatoes and that "doubles the farmer's income."
Figures from the University of Minnesota Extension Service, however, show a different picture. Their figures show irrigated farmland rents for an average of about $185 an acre statewide, and even less in Wadena County, and the gross return on corn for Minnesota is estimated at about $500 an acre. Potato returns aren't tracked.
Offutt Farms disagrees with Erickson's numbers as well as how he said the company operates on its 24,000 acres of potato fields in Minnesota.
Instead, Anne Struthers, director of communications for the company, said in a written statement that "trading fields with our neighboring farms is a common practice we've been doing for over 40 years."
"Growing crops in a 3 or more year rotation is a proven, environmentally friendly way to naturally prevent disease and pest pressure not just on our own fields, but on neighbors' fields as well," she wrote.
Nolte told the gathering as he works on the environmental worksheet, he's bothered by the fact that he has to say what he's going to do on the land in the future and not what he's done already.
"The DNR is asking me to predict the future," he said.
The Nolte family has also addressed water concerns by becoming "water quality certified" through a program offered by the state ag department.
In the end, he said his family could "lose it all" through this environmental review process.
What also upsets him, he said, is the DNR and the "activists, or I call them fake environmentalists, who are using the clearing of the land to come after water quality."
"We spent our whole life trying to work with soil and water, and you get a petition that says this crap in it," Nolte said. "It's completely hurtful to us."