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Farm expansion efforts raise tensions

Environmentalists say a Minnesota potato grower's expansion is damaging wildlife habitat.

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Aggressive food-growing efforts in central Minnesota are raising tensions between farming companies that say they have limited options and environmentalists who say the agricultural techniques are taking a toll on forests, wildlife and water quality.

In recent years, thousands of acres of pine forests in Cass, Wadena and neighboring counties have been cleared for chemically intensive agriculture. State officials worry that contaminants will leach from the farmland into groundwater supplies, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported.

The latest case involves a 1,500-acre project in Cass County, where R.D. Offutt plans to grow potatoes on grounds that were covered with trees 10 years ago. Offutt is the nation’s largest potato grower and a supplier to McDonald’s Corp.

The company recently acquired the Cass County land, whose previous owner already cleared it of trees. Offutt drilled four deep wells and installed high-capacity pumps, a development that left geologist Jeff Broberg “speechless.”

“The habitat destruction was complete,” said Broberg, who sits on a legislative advisory committee. “It might as well have been pavement after that.”

At a hearing earlier this month, Offutt manager Keith McGovern said the company doesn’t plan to increase its potato production. Offutt bought the land so it could improve crop rotation on other fields without reducing its overall potato supply, he said.

The company said it didn’t have many choices because potatoes require the sandy soil that’s common in central Minnesota.

Cass County environmental director John Ringle said he was concerned about the effect the potato growth would have on local water supplies. Potatoes require fertilizers and regular treatments with pesticide and fungicide, and irrigation can wash those chemicals into the groundwater, he said.

That’s what happened in Park Rapids in southwest Hubbard County. Water tests show rising levels of nitrates from nitrogen fertilizer, which can cause a potentially lethal condition in babies.

McGovern, who testified for Offutt at the legislative hearing, said the company is required by McDonald’s and other buyers to use environmentally friendly farming practices.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has given Offutt temporary permits to irrigate. The agency will monitor its water use and the impact on nearby surface water and wells, said Darrin Hoverson, a DNR hydrologist.

Despite the rising amount of land conversion, the state has never denied a permit because of potential risk, Hoverson said.

“That may be something for the future,” he said.

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Information from: Star Tribune, http://www.startribune.com



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