by CHRIS ROGERS
In an effort to protect drinking water from nitrate pollution, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s (MDA) proposed nitrogen fertilizer rule would, for the first time ever, regulate how farmers can use nitrogen fertilizer. Earlier versions of the rule were criticized by farming organizations, and last weekend Minnesota legislators voted to block implementation of the rule until next year.
MDA’s scaled-back rule
The proposed rule would ban farmers from applying nitrogen fertilizer in the fall, and it would require farmers near cities with elevated nitrate levels in public drinking wells to follow the University of Minnesota Extension’s (U of M) recommended nitrogen application rates. Earlier versions of the rule were criticized by numerous farm organizations as too far-reaching. In the final draft released in late April, the MDA made two big changes to make it more palatable.
First, an earlier version of the rule would have applied to all townships where private wells have high nitrate levels, which would include most of Winona County. The new version only applies to the public drinking water supply management areas (DWSMAs) that surround municipal wells and other public water supplies with high nitrate levels. In Winona County, that includes rural land south of Utica, and a smaller area of land within Altura city limits.
Second, the MDA specified that it would not require farmers to apply less nitrogen than recommended by the U of M. The U of M’s recommended application rates are meant to calculate how much nitrogen growing crops need, so that farmers can apply enough to maximize yields without applying so much that the excess washes or leeches away. An earlier version of the rule would have allowed the MDA to require farmers to use less nitrogen than recommended in areas where nitrate pollution remains stubbornly high. That provision was the main concern Winona County Farm Bureau President Glen Groth expressed in a March interview. The new version released in April specifically states that the MDA would not require farmers to apply less than the recommended amount.
In an interview this week, Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation Public Policy Director Amber Glaeser said that while the Farm Bureau was glad the MDA responded to its earlier concerns, it still wanted to have more input on the final rule. “There is some good and some bad and we want to continue to make sure we work through those and make sure our farmers are able to get their concerns and their questions answered,” she said.
Ag committees postpone implementation
The MDA had planned on adopting a final rule this winter. However, Senator Mike Goggin (R-Red Wing), along with other members of the Senate Agricultural Policy Committee and their counterparts in the House, voted to block the MDA from enacting the rule until after next spring’s legislative session.
Goggin and his peers relied on a 2001 law that allows committees in the Senate and the House to delay state agencies from implementing new rules if the oversight committees in both chambers vote to do so. State officials said the law has never been used before.
“What this means is just that the governor is not able to sign that rule or make it into law until next year,” Goggin explained. Governor Dayton’s final term ends this fall. “We just wanted to put a pause on this and give those farmers and landowners in those affected areas the opportunity to be heard,” he stated.
Goggin said that the MDA had not done enough outreach to areas affected by the rule. In Goggin’s district, that includes rural land surrounding Elgin and the city of Goodhue, as well as Altura and Utica. “This year, the areas of the state that were most affected by this nitrogen rule did not have a whole lot of input into this process, so far,” he stated. Goggin explained that the committees’ actions do not stop the nitrogen rule from being enacted; it just makes sure there is ample opportunity for public input beforehand. Some of Goggin’s fellow senators pointed out that the MDA’s comment period coincides with one of the busiest times of the year for farmers.
“There has been ample opportunity for public comment,” MDA Deputy Commissioner Matt Wohlman said. He noted that last summer, the MDA held listening sessions across the state, the legislature held public hearings on the fertilizer rule this summer, and the MDA is hosting more hearings and information sessions across Minnesota this summer.
Asked if he supports the substance of the proposed rule, Goggin said he was still evaluating it. He explained that he would like the Senate committee to hold hearings next spring on whether there is sound science supporting the U of M’s application rates and the nitrogen rule itself. “We want to make sure that those are valid, good numbers to use,” Goggin stated. “I understand that it’s the U of M and we’re not supposed to question anything from there, but I’ve always been taught to trust and verify.” He added, “I want to make sure we do the right thing for our drinking water without having a big impact on our farming communities because right now our farming communities are hurting.”
U of M application rates and other U of M recommended best management practices (BMPs) are already widely used by farmers, and years of research has gone into producing them. “Those BMPs are established using the best available science at the U,” Wohlman said. The MDA’s own scientific justification for the proposed rule is laid out in a 164-page report available on its website. In March, Groth said, “BMPs — that’s not too big of a concern because a lot of farmers are doing BMPs already.”
“It’s not that we’re against it,” Goggin said of the proposed rule. “We just want to make sure we’re doing the right thing.” He encouraged local citizens to attend the upcoming public hearings and informational meetings and submit public comments. “Let your thoughts be heard,” he stated.
On Tuesday, June 5, the MDA will host an informational meeting on the proposed nitrogen fertilizer rule at 7 p.m. at Minnesota State College - Southeast, 308 Pioneer Drive, in Red Wing. On July 18, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., there will be a formal public hearing at the Stewartville Civic Center, 105 First Street East, in Stewartville. Written comments may be submitted to Administrative Law Judge Palmer-Denig until 4:30 p.m. on July 31 by visiting https://minnesotaoah.granicusideas.com/discussions or via mail at the Office of Adminstrative Hearings, 600 North Robert Street, PO Box 64620, St. Paul, Minn., 55164-0620.