Buffer law means changes for farmers

By Nicole Brodzik
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A new state law requires up to a 50 foot buffer zone between land used for agriculture or commercial purposes to help the impacts of fertilizer and water run off. (photos by Carver County)
A new state law requires up to a 50 foot buffer zone between land used for agriculture or commercial purposes to help the impacts of fertilizer and water run off. (photos by Carver County)

With a new buffer law implementation starting this year, Minnesota farmers may need to set aside more of their land around public bodies of water.

Governor Mark Dayton signed the buffer initiative into law in June 2015, with Nov. 1, 2017 being the deadline for the buffers on public waters to be in place. The law requires a 50 foot average, 30 foot minimum buffer on public waters and a 16.5 foot minimum buffer on public drainage systems, such as public ditches. This will create around 110,000 acres of year-round plant coverage bordering waterways in Minnesota.
The goal is for these new buffer systems to help keep storm water and pollutants from public water ways, which will help keep lakes, rivers and drinking water cleaner. Land owners who do not comply with the new laws could face fines up to $500.

The Carver Soil and Water Conservation District (CSWCD) is working to help local farmers get their properties in compliance with the law by the November deadline. They held a meeting in March for local landowners to come learn about the initiative and offer solutions to farmers who did not feel like the law made sense on their properties.

“It’s controversial,” said CSWCD Farm Bill Technician Ben Datres. “We had a few land owners who gave us a lot of push back, but we also had a few who said they understood and that this was something they should have been doing.”

Datres said that for farmers that work their land right up to water ways, they are only getting run off coverage for about six months of the year and that if they are using a fertilizer, that phosphorus is going straight into the water. With the new buffers, deeper root systems will help filter out the phosphorus and other harmful chemicals from reaching the water systems.

Datres also said that it’s not a one size fits all model and that property owners are welcome to work with the CSWCD on creating buffers that work best with their properties and specific circumstances. He said the conservation district is offering to come out to farms and help land owners figure out what works best for them in compliance with the law.

“There are alternates to that 50 foot buffer depending on the water system we’re talking about,” he said. “If that buffer doesn’t make sense, we can go measure and on something that does make sense.”

That loss of workable land doesn’t necessarily mean farmers will lose money, either. Thanks to the Minnesota Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), farmer’s can declare their buffers and earn a portion of around $500 million in state and federal funds to help offset costs to farmers.

“People can make their money back, which we hope will get them to comply with the law,” Datres said. “They have to plant some kind of native species to get money from the CREP, but for cattle farmers for instance, that space can also be used for hay or alfalfa.”

According to the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, farmers who enroll in the Minnesota CREP enter into a 14-15 year contract with the state to receive money on their new buffer zones. Land owners would earn compensation based on their land’s value while maintaining ownership of the land. Enrollment is open and will remain open until the all funding has been allocated. For more information on the Minnesota CREP, visit http://www.bwsr.state.mn.us/crep/.