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Water wars: Can a Sebeka farmer grow potatoes in the sandy soils of central Minnesota?

Tim Nolte’s irrigation proposal has become a highly charged, if small, part of a larger and ongoing debate about corporate farming, growing methods and the future of family farms.

Wadena County farmer Tim Nolte looks over land that he wants to irrigate.
Wadena County farmer Tim Nolte looks over land that he wants to irrigate.
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot

In a garden behind his farmhouse near Sebeka, in central Minnesota, Tim Nolte grows all the potatoes, corn, carrots, onions and other vegetables that his family can eat. Chickens lay eggs in a nearby coop. When family members and a hired hand gathered for lunch a few days before the Fourth of July, they ate chops from a lamb the Noltes had raised themselves.

It was an image of sustainability that Nolte was proud to project – especially since his integrity as a farmer has been battered in a dispute over responsible farming in this wooded region of Minnesota.

Nolte had been running his 500-head beef cattle operation mostly out of sight, on scrappy land that has been in his family for generations, until he bought 620 acres of land from the R.D. Offutt Company, the Fargo-based potato grower whose expansion into this region of delicate soils has long faced opposition, and began seeking permits to irrigate some of it.

Environmental groups claim that Nolte is essentially working to grow potatoes on about 300 acres of the land on behalf of R.D. Offutt and have pressured regulators to slow the project. Nolte dismisses any link beyond the land purchase. “Never done business with RDO,” he said, “Never met someone named Offutt.”

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When I visited his farm, Nolte told me that he’s not sure what he will ultimately do with the disputed land. “The only reason we are involved with this is because the land is right here,” he said, referring to its proximity to his farm. “If it was 10 miles away, we wouldn’t have anything to do with it.”

However it turns out, Nolte’s proposal has become a highly charged, if small, part of a larger and ongoing debate here about corporate farming, growing methods and the future of family farms.

To study, or not to study

Potato farming began to gain popularity in the Pineland Sands region – which includes Wadena, Cass, Becker and Hubbard counties – about a decade ago when Potlatch Corporation, the giant lumber supplier, began selling its timberlands. The so-called “sandy soils” left behind after pine trees are harvested is good for growing potatoes, but the irrigation that is needed can quickly wash fertilizer and other chemicals into the groundwater.

R.D. Offutt grows many potatoes here, though in 2018 the company said it would stop expanding in Minnesota and sell its Potlatch-acquired land after the DNR ordered it to undertake an expansive study, known as an Environmental Impact Statement, of the potential for groundwater contamination. (The DNR is currently seeking a broad study of agricultural expansion in the region).

Nolte has been reluctant to talk extensively about his project, but he agreed to show me around his farm on that hot July morning. When I arrived, his two adult sons were baling hay and tending to other chores while his wife, Rita, who also runs a sanitation service, was preparing lunch.

As we rode in his pickup, Nolte talked about several of the mitigation efforts he included in an environmental assessment for the DNR, such as the buffers of trees that remain standing between the disputed fields and the Redeye River and his pledge to follow protocols established by the University of Minnesota for applying fertilizer and manure.

Heck, he said, he might not even grow potatoes.

Several people who live in this region signed a petition that sought the environmental assessment, but others support the Nolte project.

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Anne Oldakowski, the assistant manager of the Wadena Soil and Water Conservation District, has worked with Nolte on pasture improvements and other projects. She noted that his farm is certified through the Minnesota Agriculture Water Quality Certification Program, which is run by the state Department of Agriculture. “They know what they are doing, and they know what they need to do to take care of the land,” she said, “which is the kind of passion we want everyone to have.”

Two weeks ago, Nolte seemed to get a break when the DNR announced that it would not require him to undertake the more detailed Environmental Impact Statement before the agency issued water appropriation permits for the project. (As of Friday, he had received all three permits).

“We have found that the Nolte project does not have the potential for significant environmental effects and therefore does not warrant the preparation of an EIS,” DNR Assistant Commissioner Jess Richards said in a statement. However, Richards added: “The DNR remains concerned about environmental effects, specifically groundwater impacts, associated with the loss of forest lands and increased irrigation in the Pineland Sands area.”

Headed to court

The DNR’s decision seemed to clear the path for Nolte to tap three wells that were dug by R.D. Offutt before Nolte bought the property.

A few days later, however, the Environmental Working Group, a national organization that has led the opposition to the Nolte project, said it will ask the Minnesota Court of Appeals to order the environmental review. Jamie Konopacky, the EWG’s Midwest director, told me the project’s potential for harm to the region’s water supply and Nolte’s evident ties to R.D. Offutt warrant the study.

The Nolte farm near Sebeka in Wadena County.
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot
The Nolte farm near Sebeka in Wadena County.
In its filings with the DNR, the EWG included the work of an expert hydrologist who concluded that nitrate levels in the drinking water from potato farming runoff could be quadruple the limit allowed by the state Safe Drinking Water Act Limit.

Moreover, the EWG included a copy of the 2017 purchase agreement in which Nolte agreed to several conditions set forth by R.D. Offutt, such as applying for water permits and agreeing to lease agreements with the company. The contract was later amended to remove those provisions and the DNR, in its latest ruling, said it found no formal association between Nolte and R.D. Offutt. All the same, opponents say it smells like a scheme to allow R.D. Offutt to grow potatoes on Nolte’s land.

Nolte said he quickly realized the R.D. Offutt conditions would make it difficult for him to pursue his project, so he demanded the amended contract. He joked that if anyone came up with a scheme, it was him. And it was a bad one at that – growing his operation by buying land from a big corporation in the crosshairs of powerful environmentalists. “Maybe I’m just the dumbest guy around here,” he said.

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R.D. Offutt spokeswoman Tara May told me the company has no agreement to rent or trade land with Nolte. Of the broader criticism of R.D. Offutt’s presence in the region, she said: “We all care about the health of the Pineland Sands region and take seriously our commitment to farm responsibly, which is why we continually work with leading researchers and universities to meet the agronomic needs of the crops and improve soil health.”

‘Deep sadness’

On the day Nolte showed me around his farm, Konopacky was meeting with homeowners and farmers in the region to discuss the DNR’s decision and consider the appeal. She also met with people involved with the Northern Water Alliance, a group led by Mike Tauber, a plumber who lives in nearby Cass County.

Konopacky characterized the mood of the local residents as one of “deep sadness.”

“Some of them are devastated,” she said. “They moved to the area to retire and grow old with their loved ones. And now they face the possibility of chemicals being sprayed on fields and washed (into the groundwater).”

The EWG’s appeal could delay the project for months. “We wish it didn’t have to come to this,” Konopacky said.

Tauber hopes the court will order the DNR to reverse its decision, but he said the larger issue is an agricultural system that favors large-scale farming at the expense of small operators who are increasingly employing “regenerative” growing methods that are easier on the soil.

Nolte, who learned about the planned appeal Thursday, wasn’t surprised by the move.

“I just think it’s funny that they insist on that (Environmental Impact Statement) when none of them have been out to see the farm” and seriously reviewed his plans for the land, he said. (Tauber did attend an open house last fall). “I guess they are just running their own story.”

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