EASTON, Minn. — While he enjoys having a “driveway” next to his fields, Joel Rauenhorst doesn’t think the buffer strip he’s required to have between his soybeans and a drainage ditch is the best way to reduce fertilizer runoff.
Gov. Mark Dayton “just threw out a 50-foot law, and there was no logic behind it,” said Rauenhorst, 50.
The Southern Minnesota farmer thinks that by scaling back tilling instead, his fields can absorb up to three times as much water as farmland tilled conventionally, reducing the need for a buffer strip.
A 2017 amendment to Minnesota law updated the requirements for farmers like Rauenhorst to create buffers, also known as riparian filter strips, between their crops and public waterways to help prevent nitrate and phosphorus runoff from fertilizer.
The Minnesota law is one of the first steps states have taken to force conservation on American farmers, aiming to slow damaging nutrient runoff into waterways.
Most of the 12 states that have signed on the Gulf Hypoxia Task Force still have only voluntary strategies, and some Minnesota farmers say the 50-foot-wide buffer requirement is excessive.
Buffer strips can offer environmental benefits, Rauenhorst agreed, but may not be the best strategy for reducing erosion.
“The goal is to stop wind and water erosion, but there’s lots of ways you can do that,” Rauenhorst said. He and his father adopted no-tillage and strip tillage practices in the early 1990s. Neighbors laughed at the idea of leaving crop residue in place instead of tilling, he said, but the family has reaped benefits.
These practices have reduced water erosion and encouraged greater soil health across the operation, Rauenhorst said. Increased water absorption reduces nutrient leeching, enabling farmers to meet goals.
The buffer strip law does allow alternative practices to reduce the size of buffers, but farmers chafe about the land taken out of production.
“I lost an acre and a half, maybe 2 acres,” Rauenhorst said. His buffer strips are 16.5 feet wide, since his land is not next to a larger water body.
Andy Linder, 33, who farms up the road, also disagrees with the buffer strip requirement.
Linder and his father collectively farm 800 acres, all planted in cover crops from fall to spring. Cover crops are known to benefit the health of a farmer’s soil because of better water absorption and reduced nutrient loss.
“If I’m in this level of conservation, I shouldn’t have to do the buffers,” Linder said.
The Linders have switched to no-till and strip till methods and plan to purchase 15 steer to graze their lands.
“The steer eat the (cover) crops, they fertilize the soil, they get fat and get sent off to market,” said Linder.
Linder’s conservation practices save him time and money. “A fall and spring tillage pass costs the same as planting cover crops,” he said, adding that he’s sold his tilling equipment. Linder receives federal subsidies to help pay for cover crop seed.
Most farmers across Minnesota are compliant or are in the process of becoming compliant with the buffer strip law. A 2017 deadline for buffers next to public waters and a Nov. 1 deadline for buffers next to drainage ditches have largely been met, officials said.
“Ninety-nine percent of farmland next to public waters is compliant,” said Tom Gile, buffer and soil loss coordinator with the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources. About 80 percent of land next to drainage ditches meets the law.
Farmers not working toward compliance face up to $500 per parcel fines on a recurring basis and other penalties.
“Buffers aren’t a silver bullet,” Gile said. But “we want to keep our waters fishable, drinkable, and livable.”