ST. PAUL – In a move that would devastate animal agriculture in southeastern Minnesota, a number of environmental organizations – including Land Stewardship Project - have petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and asked them to mandate moratoriums on concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in the area.
If successful, the maneuver would discard the water quality practices that have been implemented by local soil and water conservation districts, farmers, and dozens of other area and state groups who have made healthy drinking water a top priority.
State Representative Steve Jacob (R-Altura), who dealt with this issue for years while serving as a Winona County commissioner, said the petition is a scheme to circumvent the local process and shut down animal agriculture, specifically dairy farms.
“This is an action being made by people who want to do an end around local officials in order to hurt farmers,” Jacob said. “If the move to supersede local decisions succeeds, it will be a real hit for all parties who have been trying for decades to do the right thing for healthy drinking water.”
Jacob said the organizations pushing for EPA involvement are targeting “Big Ag,” and “industrial farming” as the causes of the problems, yet the overwhelming majority of farmers in the area are family farmers who have passed along their land for generations.
Jacob also noted that not only do the petitioners want the EPA to prohibit the expansion of CAFOs, they also want to prohibit any modifications to their operations. They also ask the EPA to, once it decides who should be blamed for nitrate contamination, require those responsible to supply free, clean drinking water to owners of area private wells, and require CAFOs and other farms using nitrogen fertilizers to change their practices.
Jacob said he is disappointed with the lack of transparency being brought forward by those who are blaming farmers for the current problems. He notes the cities of Lewiston, Altura, and Utica and the surrounding areas have the most drinking water concerns. Yet, in its petition, there is no mention that the wastewater sewage lagoons for all three of these communities emptied into the groundwater supply, which clearly would raise the nitrate levels in drinking water.
In addition, Jacob says a number of wells that were tested for nitrate contamination are identifiably substandard and are likely in need of replacement, as most homeowners recognize they will not last forever. According to the Minnesota Department of Health’s “Well Owner’s Handbook: “Dug wells, bored wells, and drive-point wells are often less than 50 feet deep, and are more likely to be contaminated by surface water, sewage from septic systems, or chemical spills. Many of the techniques used in the past for constructing dug or bored wells are not sanitary and are no longer legal under the state rules.”
Jacob, who helped develop Minnesota’s ag water quality certification program and has received numerous farm awards for being an environmental and conservation steward, believes many of the drinking water problems of today were caused by what can now be identified as poor farming practices in the 1960’s and 1970’s. He notes most area farmers follow best management practices, and worries that the demands being made by EPA petitioners are potentially blaming the wrong people and will likely make the problem worse. The primary diet of dairy cows is alfalfa. Limiting dairy animals also limits alfalfa, which is known to stabilize soil, filter ground water and does not require nitrogen such as anhydrous ammonia required by the corn and bean row crops that will inevitably replace the alfalfa.
“I care deeply about our environment, but if the goal is to find scapegoats for the nitrogen that’s in our drinking water, then we need to review all of the data that is being ignored in this petition as opposed to simply destroying our local dairy industry,” Jacob said. “We cannot redo what has been done in the decades past, and we also have to realize that best practices may have already addressed the problem, but the results of that effort haven’t arrived quickly enough for some.”
On Tuesday, October 3, the Subcommittee on Minnesota Water Policy will hold a meeting on the EPA request at 9:00 a.m. in Room 120 of the Minnesota State Capitol. The public will be able to access the livestream from the Subcommittee’s meetings webpage at: https://www.lcc.mn.gov/smwp/Meetings_2023.html. Jacob believes few area residents know this action is taking place, and encourages interested residents to watch the hearing and learn more.
“We need to do all we can for the environment, but we also need to do it in a fair and balanced way without giving government control over other people’s land,” Jacob said. “We need people to work together and end this witch hunt on southeastern Minnesota’s dairy farmers.”