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Should the state of Minnesota compensate farmers for buffer land?

Harold Wolle
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
Harold Wolle, a corn and soybeans farmer near St. James, standing in his two acres of 16.5-feet brome grass buffer between his plants and a drainage ditch.

Harold Wolle has grown corn and soybeans on his farm near St. James in southwest Minnesota since 1976. Lately, Wolle has been growing brome grass, too. But it’s not for sale.

To comply with a landmark clean water law passed in 2015 under Gov. Mark Dayton, Wolle — a former president of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, a trade group — planted two acres of the grass in 2017 to serve as a buffer between his crops and a drainage ditch. 

The law requires such buffer strips to reduce the amount of fertilizer and other chemical runoff seeping into waterways. It also started a rancorous fight between farm groups and state government over the cost of taking land out of production, the effectiveness of the regulations — and their implementation.

That battle has since cooled, especially after DFL Gov. Tim Walz took office, and compliance is high. Yet some agricultural trade groups continue to push for a substantial change to the program: to get paid in some fashion for the land used as buffers.

The Corn Growers have pushed a $50-an-acre tax credit at the Legislature, which Walz has supported. That proposal, or similar ones, also drew endorsements from many DFLers, Republicans and ag groups. Yet none has become law.

The Legislature did approve a different tax break for farmers — on property taxes used to pay for local school bonds — that has been celebrated by many in agriculture. But Wolle said farmers haven’t given up a drive to pass a buffer tax credit. “There’s a general level of dissatisfaction with the buffer program and how it came to be,” Wolle said. “That there is no compensation and there is no tax relief for those acres that were put in.”

The buffer law was one of Dayton’s chief efforts to clean up water throughout the state. The quality of groundwater, lakes and streams are often poor in southern Minnesota and other places where pollution from agriculture is high. The law requires 50-foot strips of grass or other buffer vegetation along lakes, rivers and streams and 16.5-foot buffers along ditches to help filter phosphorus, nitrogen and sediment. There are exceptions and alternative practices allowed in some circumstances.

About 98 percent of land next to regulated waters is now compliant with the buffer law, according to Tom Gile, the resource conservation section manager at Minnesota’s Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR). Initially, Dayton and his administration were criticized for not getting enough input from farmers in crafting and implementing the regulations. The rules have since been tweaked to offer farmers more flexibility.

Still, during his campaign for governor, Walz promised to take a look at the law and endorsed the concept of a tax break for buffer land. (Republican candidate Jeff Johnson promised to scrap the buffer regulations altogether and start over.) And once in office, Walz proposed a $50-an-acre tax credit program for buffer land, an initiative that would have cost $15.25 million per year once fully up and running.

Lots of proposals, little success

Walz was not the only elected official with a buffer proposal during the 2019 legislative session. Sen. Torrey Westrom, an Elbow Lake Republican who chairs the Senate’s Agriculture, Rural Development and Housing Finance Committee, introduced a bill that would direct the state to simply pay farmers for tillable land used for buffers — at the price that renting it for agriculture would cost.

Another bill introduced by Rep. Paul Torkelson, a Republican from Hanska, would create a tax credit worth the full property taxes a farmer would pay on the land used for a buffer. Counties and local governments would then be reimbursed by the state for the lost tax revenue. Torkelson estimated the program would cost between $8 and $9 million per year. 

His measure ended up winning support from some farmers and county governments, which say it would be easier and fairer to implement. Torkelson’s bill was also cosponsored by Rep. Paul Marquart, a Dilworth DFLer who chairs the influential House Taxes Committee.

In an interview, Marquart said he supported tax breaks for farmers who implement buffers and endorsed Walz’s plan as well. But he said lawmakers opted to skip the buffer tax credit, at least for now, in favor of a different tax break for farmers.

The Legislature this year approved an increase in the school building bond agricultural credit, which pays a share of property taxes on farm land when local voters approve school construction levies. Currently, farmers are reimbursed for 40 percent of the taxes they pay for the bond. It will now be increased to 70 percent by 2023. Marquart said the measure will cost roughly $40 million per year.

Marquart said he felt the school credit would have a bigger impact to help farmers than the buffer credit and will make it more likely for rural areas to successfully pass school construction levies. He said bond measures often pass in metro areas, but are harder to pass in rural areas where farmland dominates a county and agriculture shoulders more of the tax burden.

MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
Wolle, a former president of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, planted the buffer after Gov. Mark Dayton's signature clean-water buffer law took effect.
“My belief is that a rural student deserves to have the same opportunity as someone in the [Twin Cities] metro to have a top-notch, modern school facility,” Marquart said. “So unlike the buffer zone, which basically deals with one issue, that ag-to-school credit really deals with a couple.”

So why not pass both tax credits? “Basically, cost and dollars and so forth,” Marquart said. “It just wasn’t going to probably be possible to do both.”

In a written statement, Walz told MinnPost that “Minnesota’s farmers care about protecting the environment, and we need to help them do it.”

“That’s why I proposed a tax credit to help farmers cover the cost of buffer strips,” Walz said. “While it didn’t get passed this legislative session, I will continue to work to find ways to support our farmers in efforts to protect the environment, and I am proud of the work we did this year to provide general tax relief for farmers across the state.”

Not all want a buffer tax break

There are lawmakers from both parties, however, who oppose the concept of a buffer tax credit. Sen. Roger Chamberlain, a Lino Lakes Republican who chairs the Senate’s Taxes Committee, criticized the law requiring buffers as overreach, akin to “seizing land,” and he sympathized with farmers who say regulations are hurting their business.

Yet Chamberlain said he’s staunchly opposed to tax credits, in general, because he said they’re overused and cutting into Minnesota’s tax base at a time when the state’s workforce shortage is pinching the economy

Giving a tax break to farmers for buffers is Walz’s “cheap, easy way out” of a bad policy, Chamberlain said. “Steal the property then beat me up because we don’t want to give a tax credit,” he said. “You stole the property that they use for producing food so you can eat, and then say that it’s some sort of tax issue. No, it’s a state government policy issue of stealing property and not compensating people for it.”

State Rep. Rick Hansen, a South St. Paul DFLer who chairs the House Environment and Natural Resources Finance Division, said state government regulates people and businesses all the time for the public good and doesn’t compensate them — such as smoking in restaurants.

Hansen, who has a farm in southern Minnesota where he grows corn and soybeans, said the buffer law was just one piece of what needs to be a large effort to clean up drinking water in agricultural areas. He suggested the agriculture industry focus on solving more “impactful” issues like trade problems and the shrinking number of farmers. 

“I think it’s an example of an inability to move on to the next pressing issues that we have with water quality because there are interests who just can’t let it go,” Hansen said.

Hansen also noted state and federal government has helped pay the cost of growing buffers in Minnesota. The Legislature appropriated at least $46 million over the last several years for a number of buffer-related purposes, according Gile, the resource conservation section manager at BWSR. That includes technical assistance and cash payments for farmers to grow buffers, as well as money for counties and watershed districts that choose to enforce the law. The state enforces the buffer law when those local governments don’t.

Farm groups keep pushing

It’s clear that the buffer law isn’t as radioactive of a political battle as it once was. Chamberlain said neither House DFLers nor Walz pushed strongly for the tax credit in negotiations.

And Wolle, the farmer in southwest Minnesota, said relations with state government have improved under Walz. He said Department of Agriculture Commissioner Thom Peterson is “very accessible” and supports policies that benefit farmers. 

Wolle also said a buffer law without a tax credit won’t “cause every farmer in southern Minnesota to go bankrupt.” Besides the two acres of buffer Wolle planted in 2017, he already had 18 acres of buffer because of an older, similar regulation on the books. Wolle has 1,800 acres of farmland in total. The drainage ditch his new buffer protects eventually flows into the Watonwan River and is part of the Mississippi River watershed.

Brian Thalmann, current president of the Corn Growers Association, also praised Walz’s administration. He said the school building bond tax break will bring “significant tax relief” to farmers in certain school districts.

But Thalmann said those who planted buffers are “not necessarily getting any relief unless they have a school tax situation also.” “We just want to make it clear that if it’s for the public good, then the public should be responsible for paying the bill,” he said.

With the heavy rains that pushed back planting this year, Wolle said crop yields could be suppressed and “margins are relatively thin.” Every acre can help, he said, when you plant corn in June rather than April. “Farmers want to farm the whole farm, that’s kind of how we are,” he said. “It’s when you put the whole program together is when you achieve profitability.”

Comments (23)

  1. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 08/01/2019 - 11:37 am.

    Give them the $50 an acre tax credit and modify it with an either or:

    1. Collect the tax credit


    2. Participate in crop subsidies

    1 Or 2, but not both. Pick the one that puts the most $$ in your pocket.

    Fail to establish buffers and you are also ineligible for crop subsidies.

    Way to many “rugged individualist” farmers who want no interference in their farming lives other than guaranteed income from the government.

  2. Submitted by Brian Mann on 08/01/2019 - 11:55 am.

    Buffer land always should have been the case and the cost of doing business next to public waterways. Because it has not, I could see phasing out a public tax benefit for a determined length of time to ease the cost burden from a sudden cost shock.

  3. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 08/01/2019 - 12:11 pm.

    What??? This us crazy.i changed oil in my car last night. I didn’t pour the waste oil out on the ground. Can I get a tax credit for not polluting?

  4. Submitted by Kent Fralish on 08/01/2019 - 12:58 pm.

    The State should just buy the buffered land from the farmers at fair market value and be done with it.

    • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 08/02/2019 - 08:19 am.

      The majority do not want to sell, and that leaves eminent domain which will lead to even more screaming and complaining.

      Many already have more lucrative CRP options that they have passed on in order to give their cows a place to swim…

    • Submitted by Ken Tschumper on 08/04/2019 - 07:33 am.

      The survey costs would be more than the value of the land.

  5. Submitted by Alex Schieferdecker on 08/01/2019 - 01:41 pm.

    Given the recent study about how planting billions of trees might be a valuable strategy (out of many) in the fight to limit climate change, I wonder if farmers could get their tax credit, but along with a program to plant in these buffers whatever vegetation would be most effective at capturing carbon.

  6. Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 08/01/2019 - 02:06 pm.

    Make Cargill/Bayer-Monsanto/Dow/ADM/General Mills/Pillsbury etc corporate behemoth making most of the money polluting the water and exterminating pollinators pay for it.

    Or is that heresy in this corporatized, monopoly loving, so-called Democracy? (Cleary in such conversations/articles about farming, the aforementioned corporations lording over farmers and the leadership of this state are conspicuously never mentioned.)

    • Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 08/03/2019 - 09:15 am.

      Reading through the comments, I hear those corporate executives and investors controlling food production in this country laughing.

      Divide and conquer. Get “consumers” and “farmers” to fight about that which they have little control over, as those with all the power grow obscenely rich, the land and waters grow ever more polluted, and pollinators are exterminated.

  7. Submitted by James Hamilton on 08/01/2019 - 02:57 pm.

    Buffers are one option for keeping farm-generated pollutants out of public waters. However a farmer chooses to do it, the costs incurred are simply a cost of doing business, just as is the cost of the fertilizer that finds its way into our streams and rivers.

    There is simply no legal, ethical, or moral justification for paying farmers to clean up behind themselves.

    “Minnesota’s Buffer Law requires perennial vegetative buffers of up to 50 feet along lakes, rivers, and streams and buffers of 16.5 feet along ditches. These buffers help filter out phosphorus, nitrogen and sediment. The deadline for implementation for buffers on public waters was November 1, 2017. The deadline for public ditches was November 1, 2018. The law provides flexibility for landowners to install alternative practices with equivalent water quality benefits that are based on the Natural Resources Conservation Service Field Office Technical Guide.”

  8. Submitted by Peter Gove on 08/01/2019 - 03:15 pm.

    As Gov. Dayton said in proposing his signature buffer law, ‘its your land but our water.” Do farmers really need a payment to do the right thing for downstream users of the runoff coming off of their fields, typically full of nutrients? The tax credit is certainly not the most onerous option, but how about planting a perennial cover crop that protects runoff in the buffer area, typically hard for many farmers to cultivate in any case? All other sectors must treat wastewater. Ag. has been exempt since the 1972 Federal Water Pollution Control Act. It seems to me this buffer law is a modest step for a critical issue facing our state – ag. runoff impacts on surface and groundwater.

  9. Submitted by Charles Holtman on 08/01/2019 - 05:57 pm.

    Building on one’s house lot right to the public way depreciates the public way, impairs the delivery of public services, and thus imposes a social cost. Consequently, my city requires that I maintain a 10-foot house setback from the front edge of my property. It is fundamental that all private rights are subject to reasonable limitation for the public welfare. I don’t expect to be paid for being deprived of the right to build to the sidewalk.

    Row cropping to the edge of a ditch or stream fosters the flow of pollutants from cropped land into the public waters. It is fundamental that the private right to row crop one’s land is subject to reasonable limitation so this private activity for private economic gain doesn’t damage public waters and uses downstream.

    Please advise in what way these are not analogous. Echoing Mr. Hamilton above, I continue to search for the reasoning to justify the public’s paying for the loss of ability to row crop to the stream edge or, as the law allows, for the producer’s implementation of alternative practices to keep phosphorus and sediments on the land and out of the commons.

    The school bond legislation sounds reasonable: an acre of farmland places qualitatively less demand on the school system than an acre of residential land. And, if the buffer materially reduces the value of farmland, the property tax valuation should account for it.

  10. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 08/01/2019 - 06:02 pm.

    As a couple of commenters have already noted, dumping your waste into the commons is a way of reducing your cost of doing business, who pays for cleaning up the waterways after the farmers run off pollutes the rivers etc.? Are not the down stream folks entitled to good water? You know us city folks have to pay a wastewater treatment fee every month, do we really think farmers are entitled to more free stuff?

  11. Submitted by Rod Loper on 08/02/2019 - 07:17 am.

    Is it time to address the question of relying on property taxes to pay for public schools?

  12. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 08/02/2019 - 08:03 am.

    I’m with Mr. Blaise, Mr. Phelan and Mr. Hamilton on this one. There’s no justification – at least, not one that makes sense – for paying farmers not to pollute water that’s necessary for all the human and animal life in their area. In almost any other context, suggesting something similar would be called “extortion,” and quite properly condemned.

    • Submitted by Ivy Chang on 08/06/2019 - 02:30 pm.

      I’m with Schoch, Blaise, Phelan, and Hamilton. Farmers receive more tax credits than other businesses. I read an article from the United Nations that said the world has more than enough food to feed everyone if the people have access to the food. But people and governments waste food. Perhaps farmers don’t have to plant as much acreage as they think. Farmers chose their work.

  13. Submitted by Thomas Weyandt on 08/02/2019 - 11:02 am.

    Would it make sense to see how much tax is owed on a per acre basis? A quick check revealed that the total per acre tax bill in a western MN farm was $54 a year. Should the owner still have to pay $4 an acre for land used as a buffer? Should there be an offset if that land is enrolled in some program such as CRP?

    On the other hand if paying for the use of the land would satisfy farmers and up compliance isn’t that a win/win?

  14. Submitted by Dan Handke on 08/02/2019 - 11:32 am.

    Chamberlain‘s statement that farmers produce food so we can eat is misleading. His portrayal of farming as a noble, higher calling, profession shows how effective lobbyists and a good PR campaign can be. Chamberlain kept quiet about the 21 ethanol plants that farmers feed in MN.

  15. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 08/02/2019 - 03:29 pm.

    How about a deal?

    Farmers get their tax credit, and then the legislators they send to the Evil City Of Saint Paul stop telling us how to run our lives?

    You know, let us ban plastic bags and raise the minimum wage if we wish. They can just stop with the local interference laws.

    And they could also cut with non-sense about being wiser than those of us they call “cidiots”. Because if you want my help, stop being condescending to me, always with your hand out but telling me you pay for everything in the Metro you seems to disdain.

  16. Submitted by Jeffrey McIntyre on 08/04/2019 - 06:24 am.

    Pay them for buffers; but charge them for mowing / baling ditches on public roadways (which was an issue a few years ago).

  17. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 08/05/2019 - 01:18 pm.

    Anyone have lake frontage? Surprise, state/county/city, etc/ wants you to buffer to the lake (no you don’t get to use that area for recreation and then pay ginormous taxes as well. A lot more than $20-50 an acre, more like $25-30 per lineal foot of water frontage!

  18. Submitted by John Kantar on 08/07/2019 - 04:18 pm.

    Absolutely compensate farmers for maintaining buffer zones. We pay low prices for food in this country and farmers are already struggling. Keeping the water supply clean, available, and plentiful is a necessary obligation of the entire society and tax breaks to farmers for giving up arable land in this cause is a cheap price to pay as it spreads the costs and responsibilities more fairly. We all have to act, no water no life.

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