The Winona County Comprehensive Planning Committee is sticking to its guns. At its Monday meeting, the group responded to critiques of its draft plan by the Winona County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD), the Land Stewardship Project (LSP), the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), and organic farmer Jim Riddle. Apart from a decision to remove citizen surveys and comments from townships and the committee itself from the body of the plan, the group made few significant changes to the document. The committee nearly approved a final version of the plan at the Monday meeting, but decided to give the plan a "polishing" next month before recommending a final version for review by the Planning Commission in September. The committee hopes the plan will be approved by the County Board this fall.
In his criticism of the plan, LSP organizer Doug Nopar wrote that the plan did not reflect the public input received through citizen surveys. Many who responded to the surveys named environmental protection and recreation as their top priorities.
The few dozen citizens who responded to surveys for the Winona County Comprehensive Plan do not represent the majority of public opinion, said committee member Everett Rolfing.
"We've had very, very small turnout at public hearings; this is not necessarily a majority of [public] opinion," Rolfing said of the surveys. "I thought they were there to guide us for our own information and thought … I don't know if it should be kept as part of the permanent record," he added. Rolfing also stated that a citizen had been caught "stuffing the ballot box," inserting extra comments into a comment box, and argued that "makes many of these comments are false."
Including the survey responses and township and committee comments takes up pages and pages in an already lengthy document, other committee members noted. Committee members agreed that the surveys and comments were best removed from the body of the plan, but there was disagreement on whether to include them in an appendix or not publish them at all. Committee member Bob Marg said the surveys should be removed, but documented in an appendix.
"Well, our mission is to update the Comprehensive Plan," committee chair Mike Flynn responded. "[Publishing] a separate thing — does that fall within our mission?"
The committee voted 14-0 to delete the citizen survey responses, as well as comments from townships and the committee, including the committee's comment that under the current comprehensive plan, "Feedlots go through hell to expand and cities expand without justification."
The SWCD Board recommended removing the statement that Right to Farm language in the plan "may prevent [rural residents] from obtaining a legal judgement" against nuisances caused by their neighbors' normal farming operations. Committee member Don Evanson said he disagreed with the recommendation, noting that it simply states the language might prevent legal judgements, not that it will necessarily prevent legal judgements. The committee moved on without further comment or action.
LSP and Riddle both questioned the Comprehensive Planning Committee's proposed policy to promote all kinds of agriculture equally. "This language is inconsistent with the overwhelming majority of public input in favor of farming methods that protect the soil, water, and environment," Nopar wrote. Riddle recommended that bioengineering should be dropped from a statement in the draft plan that the county should promote family farming, agricultural start-ups, value-added farm products, bioengineering, and diversity in agriculture. The SWCD Board agreed.
Riddle is the chair of the SWCD Board but also submitted comments on the plan as an individual.
"By including the term 'bioengineering,' the committee is showing preference for one system of agriculture, which has been shown through peer-reviewed research to increase pesticide use; endanger human health, promote the development of herbicide-resistant weeds and pesticide-resistant insects, cause mortality among aquatic organisms, and cost more for farmers," Riddle wrote.
"Well, I'm going to speak against that," Evanson said of Riddle's criticism. "We wouldn't be feeding the world if we didn't have bio-engineering improving plants by increasing vitamins in them and helping the world in terms of health, sustainability, and survivability. That's all through bioengineering," he added.
If people want to take away bioengineered crops, they might as well take away the internet and cellphones; bioengineering is the agricultural equivalent of those modern conveniences, Marg said.
Perhaps including "bioengineering" in the policy recommendation is not necessary because the phrase "diversity in agriculture" already encompasses it and other kinds of farming, Flynn suggested.
Evanson rejected that argument, pointing out that the policy recommendation specifies a list of other agriculture practices the county should support, such as start-ups and value-added products.
Committee member Leon Bowman agreed with Flynn and made a motion to strike "bioengineering."
"We should leave it 'bioengineering' in there for the future, because there is a group of people in this country that want to get rid of bioengineering totally," said Duane Wirt. Wirt stated that farmers would not be able to feed the world and that the water quality benefits of no-till row cropping would not be possible without genetically modified crops.
Flynn defended the SWCD recommendation. "Nobody's trying to take that away, they're just saying 'diversity' includes that, and they're saying that if you want to treat us all in a more neutral way, diversity covers it," he said.
"Somebody complains that our document does not have a vision," Evanson said, referring to one of Riddle's critiques. "Well, bioengineering needs to be part of our vision and it needs to be in here."
"GMOs [genetically modified organisms] are coming under attack," Marg commented.
"And Riddle is promoting the attack," Evanson stated.
"He has something to gain from it; the world has something to gain from GMOs and bioengineering," Wirt asserted.
Bowman's motion to delete "bioengineering" failed for lack of a second.
Riddle also recommended that the Comprehensive Plan Committee include information on health trends in the county. Flynn said that the county has a health committee that should address those issues, referring to the Health Impact Assessment (HIA) Committee. "That kind of information belongs in that committee, not the comprehensive plan," he said. The county won a grant from the state health department to conduct an HIA, a study that would provide policy recommendations for boosting public health, as part of the comprehensive plan update. However, a separate committee would have guided the policy recommendations in the HIA. The Comprehensive Planning Committee opposed the HIA, and the County Board voted 3-2 not to include the HIA in the comprehensive plan update.
An MPCA representative who commented on the draft plan was concerned by the tone of a comment made in Rollingstone Township's profile. "Community-based planning and ecosystem management concepts are conceived, promoted and controlled by non-farm opinion and a threat to the rights of farmers," township officials wrote in the section of the comprehensive plan dedicated to the township.
"I think it has good tenor," Evanson said.
"Coming from Rollingstone Township, I think it should stay right there," committee member Bruce Speltz said. "I'm fine with it, it just threatens the MPCA," he added. Committee member Judy Ellinghuysen laughed and said, "As if they never threaten us."
The committee did make a change recommended by Riddle: the group changed the phrase "disposal of manure" to "resource utilization." Riddle wrote, "The choice of the word 'disposal' reflects the committee’s attitude toward nutrient recycling by viewing manure as a waste instead of as a valuable source of nutrients."
Committee Shelly DePestel was puzzled at Riddle's concern. Even though the word "disposal" is used, no one is disposing of manure in the sense of throwing it away, it is all utilized in a field application of some kind, she said.
Ultimately the committee unanimously agreed that replacing the wording would alleviate the concern without doing any harm. "It won't change how we use the word in the country, though," Speltz commented.