Big Ag is conquering Minnesota like a noxious, unkillable weed

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Dip your paddle into Lake Crystal on some muggy afternoon, and it will return lathered in a soupy green slime. Each summer, algae sludge forms a thick seal on the water's surface.

It's toxic and cruelly pervasive. One dog died last month after being poisoned by Red Rock Lake in Douglas County. Three more were killed by the blue-green foam in 2014.

Children have been warned away: Touching or breathing in the foul-smelling toxin could bring on vomiting, rash, and liver damage.

There are no more swimmable lakes in southwestern Minnesota, a 1,783-square-mile stretch that spans six counties. Dangerous levels of phosphorous, nitrogen, and bacteria like E. Coli will take decades to clean up, says the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. The problem extends along our southern border, where rampant pollution threatens the safety of drinking water.

Legislators hem and haw about potential causes. The science isn't so mealy-mouthed: The bulk of the pollution is from factory farms and fertilizer runoff.

"What they're doing, it isn't farming, says Sonja Trom Eayrs, who grew up on her family's farm in Dodge County. "It's manufacturing."

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A standard 2,400-head hog barn can produce upward of 45,000 pounds of liquid manure each day

Minnesota's water quality — our state's greatest natural asset — has become a sacrificial lamb to Big Ag.

The industry has rapidly but quietly taken control of the state legislature, affixing Minnesota with a new slogan: the Land of 9,000 Lakes and 1,000 Cesspools. Protective agencies are being stripped of power, while ag groups are commanding the purse strings of public funds.

You, the taxpayer, will be left to clean up the mess. For the plot to turn Minnesota into the next Iowa has already begun.

Bigger. Faster. More.

Trom Eayrs is at war with her neighbors.

Her family has farmed a fertile slice of God's country an hour south of the Twin Cities since the 1800s. Trom Eayrs's great-grandfather built the 10-pew Lutheran church in Westfield Township in 1917.

Lowell Trom, the 86-year-old patriarch, has plowed, planted, and harvested his fields for 73 years, though the tractor cab is now climate controlled and can run on autopilot with a GPS system.

Lowell doesn't use it. It beeps at him, goading him to abdicate control as he steers down rows of soybeans in waiting. "If you want to quit, you might as well lay down and kick the bucket and get it over with," he says.

The Trom family isn't interested in quitting.

But they're fighting a losing battle. Another feedlot, the 11th within three miles of their 760-acre farm, just squeezed onto a neighboring parcel. The clean white barn belies the swarm of 2,400 hogs stirring within. The wall of sickening stench stretches for miles, crawling into your throat.

Before the 1960s, hogs were raised outside, given free rein to root in fields and cool themselves in the shallows of mud pits. The rule of thumb was an acre of pasture per every 10 hogs. Factory farming shatters that standard.

The new feedlot next door packs thousands on just six acres. Sonja Trom Eayrs, Lowell's daughter, predicts owner Nick Masching will put in another barn soon, bringing 4,800 hogs to land "the size of a postage stamp."

The Masching family owns roughly 20,000 hogs in Westfield Township, dwarfing a human population of just 421. Last year, the Troms sued Masching to keep the feedlot out, citing health and water safety while claiming the county fast-tracked approval without planning for the tons of manure the facility would produce.

A judge ignored the Troms' concerns, asking only that the Maschings complete a waste management plan. In the rubber-stamp counties of southern Minnesota, there's scant concern over concentrating thousands of animals, though they produce one of Minnesota's leading pollution threats: liquid manure, more than 45,000 pounds a day.

Animal waste is a powerful fertilizer, but only if you have enough land to use it. Feedlots typically don't. They collect the liquid in giant concrete basins or open pit lagoons, then try to hawk it to neighbors.

State records show the myriad ways this can all go bad: pump failures, leaky hoses, and stormwater overflow dump thousands of gallons of manure into waterways.

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Sonja Trom Eayrs and her father, Lowell, on their farm in southern Minnesota

Last year, Luoma Egg Ranch, a large factory farm south of Duluth, was fined $95,000 for allowing chicken excrement and waste eggs to flow into Medicine Creek. Inspectors repeatedly found manure bubbling from a manhole at the farm, tracing it nearly a mile away to a stream full of dead vegetation and fecal matter.

There have been 128 spills in Minnesota since 2007.

Dale Schmeling, a semi-retired homebuilder from Westfield, recalls watching a hog farmer dump liquid manure on a 20-acre field near his house.

"They didn't inject it into the ground. They drove out there and opened the valve on the back of the semi-trailer and they just let it run on top of the ground. They went back and forth until they'd covered the 20 acres."

It was August and the fetid smell carried for miles. The trucks came back the next day and covered the field again. Then they came back a third day, filling six-inch deep tire tracks with pools of manure. It didn't sink in for days.

Unfortunately, over-applied manure and other fertilizers are a prime source for southern Minnesota's water problems, says the MPCA. Storms wash out the soil, driving bacteria and chemicals into lakes and rivers.

Worse, the feedlots near the Troms aren't even monitored by the state. Roughly half of Minnesota's counties regulate their own feedlots. Clearance comes from county commissioners, often feedlot operators themselves, in a process akin to allowing oil execs to oversee the safety of off-shore drilling.

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Buffer strips border a drainage ditch on the Trom family farm

In Dodge County, only 10 percent of the 234 registered feedlots are inspected each year. Trom Eayrs found that only 15 percent had submitted necessary plans for dealing with the rivers of liquid manure they produce.

Meanwhile, the rise of factory feedlots has spurred a twin ascent of massive corn and soy farms, which supply food for all those pigs. They don't just amplify the pollution. They suffocate smaller competitors, forcing residents to flee the countryside and leaving small towns abandoned, peopled by just a few owners and hired hands.

Minnesota Commissioner of Agriculture Dave Frederickson grew up in Murdock, a little town in western Minnesota. When he was a kid, Murdock had its own school, a couple of grocery stores, and a few gas stations.

"Today it has no grocery stores, no bars, no restaurants, and one gas station," he says. "There was nothing to really do to stop it. It happened right before our very eyes."

The city 20 miles south of the Trom farm holds a clue to what's driving this bigger, badder form of farming. Austin is Minnesota's hog capital, home of Hormel. The company processes 9.4 million hogs each year.

Farmers who once brought Hormel trailers full of hogs have since been turned away. Bring back a semi full, they were told.

"We live in the shadow of Hormel," Sonja says. "And when you live in the shadow of Hormel, you play by their rules."

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Blue-green algae, a toxic side effect of farm runoff, coats a Minnesota lake

Those rules: Bigger. Faster. More.

The next Iowa

Wayne Cords warned his audience to look away.

"Some of these photos are graphic," he said. "If you don't have a strong stomach or you just ate lunch, don't look at the pictures too close."

The screen filled with the carnage from a barn fire that wiped out 400 sows, which were buried in a shallow pit. One photo showed "decomposition juices" oozing to the surface.

Cords, a feedlot supervisor from Mankato, was speaking at a 2013 Minnesota Pollution Control Agency hearing. Big Ag arrived in full force, hoping to keep the agency from regulating the disposal of dead animals. But Cords's pig pile proved how easily they can spoil surface waters.

At the time, Minnesota was grappling with a deadly epidemic of porcine diarrhea virus, which wiped out 8 million piglets across the country. After the MPCA made its case, Big Ag offered a parade of rebuttal.

First came Gary Koch of Gislason and Hunter, Minnesota's go-to lawyer for farm-friendly litigation. Then came Perry Aasness of Agri-Growth, a lobbying group, followed by David Preisler of the Minnesota Pork Producers. It was as if the whole deli aisle had risen to speak, featuring execs from the cattle, dairy, and turkey industries.

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Lowell Trom’s family farm is now surrounded by 11 feedlots

They stuck to the party line: They wanted feedlot permits granted faster with fewer hurdles. They wanted to curb the state's right to oversee the biggest feedlots. They wanted the MPCA to butt out of the disposal of dead animals.

Aasness argued there was "little evidence that these proposed changes would provide any real environmental benefits." Worse, the rules kept farmers from being competitive with neighboring states.

Then a farmer from one of those neighboring states took the floor. Chris Petersen, a hog producer from Clear Lake, Iowa, had a message for Minnesota.

"Being so close to Minnesota, I think highly of your state," he announced. "I have fished up here many times. Beautiful state. I would like to see it stay that way. I look at what's going on in Iowa. We are 49th in water quality. I'm ashamed. We have more impaired waterways in Iowa than we did a year ago. I'm ashamed. I don't want to see that happen in other states."

Iowa, after all, offered a coming attraction of what Big Ag had planned for Minnesota. This spring, Des Moines Water Works, the state's largest water utility, sued three northwestern counties to force farmers to comply with clean water standards.

Farm chemicals have poisoned drinking water in the state's capital, costing the utility millions of dollars in cleanup. The water can cause spontaneous abortions, a blood disorder that kills infants, and possibly cancer.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources reports that the number of polluted rivers, lakes, and streams is up 15 percent in the last two years. Bacteria from manure spills or leaks is largely to blame.

"I know ag has changed, but when traditional farmers raised livestock in Iowa, we didn't have this going on," Petersen testified.

He had come to warn Minnesota, to argue against some of the biggest players in agriculture.

On its face, the fight was a mismatch. This was no accident.

A very big shadow

The term "agribusiness" was coined in the 1950s, when the prospect of feeding the world with new, large-scale farming became rural America's divine mission. Such nobility of purpose made larger and larger farms morally immune to arguments over food safety, pollution, and animal welfare.

"Organic farming is good if you have a few vegetables or a flower bed," Russell Schwandt, founder of the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council, testified before Congress in a 1977 debate over regulating fertilizer use. "If you're going to try to feed 8 billion people, it's a bunch of nonsense."

In 1968, Schwandt, then Minnesota's commissioner of Agriculture, founded Agri-Growth to connect Big Ag with legislators, so that "those engaged in agriculture would be best served."

Today, the group puffs its chest as the state's only organization "solely devoted" to building a pro-business path for ag. Its mission: to "urge the Legislature to eliminate whenever possible regulatory and legislative restrictions" that keep Minnesota from competing in the big bad world of mass food production.

Its roster includes Monsanto, Cargill, Land O' Lakes, Pfizer, and Hormel, not to mention banks, lawyers, and chemical companies.

"They represent corporate interests," says the Minnesota Environmental Partnership's Steve Morse. "They're the big guys. They have a lot of influence."

In 2013, Agri-Growth joined A Greater Minnesota, a new nonprofit linking the state's key agribusiness groups. It included the leaders of every large commodity group — from the Milk Producers to the Corn Growers, in addition to the Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation, an anti-regulation lobbying group that represents some 30,000 state farmers.

First on its agenda was bringing that parade of executives to the MPCA's feedlot hearing.

Despite their united front, the MPCA refused to back down.

So A Greater Minnesota decided to go over the agency's head. It decided to take control of the Minnesota legislature.

Last year, the group introduced a splashy website with the goal of "candidate education." It rolled out a five-point pledge, asking legislators to support all farms, big and small.

With skilled doublespeak, A Greater Minnesota urged politicians to push for "environmental policies that are based on sound science and best practices."

But the term "sound science" was a euphemism for dismissing science altogether. It was coined a decade before as part of President George W. Bush's arsenal of empty phrases to avoid talk of global warming.

A Greater Minnesota also asked legislators to oppose GMO labeling, advocate "best practices" in animal welfare, and support "responsible regulation and voluntary practices." The gentle phrasing of "best practices" and "voluntary practices" softened the group's essential plea: Trust us, Minnesota. We can regulate ourselves.

The results were promising. Sixty-five candidates signed the pledge. When election results rolled in, the picture was even rosier: The 35 "Five-Star Pledgers" who were elected to office included the chairs of five key committees in the House of Representatives.

A Greater Minnesota was about to ask for a blank check for Big Ag. House Republicans, now in the majority, were happy to sign it.

Rebuffed

If the ag industry thought they had a mandate coming out of the 2014 election, so did environmentalists. Gov. Mark Dayton staked his reputation on protecting the state's water. He used the troubling condition of southern Minnesota's water to call for a 50-foot buffer of vegetation around all of Minnesota's lakes, rivers, and streams.

But Dayton's landmark protection was dead on arrival. John Marty, a bookish, bowtied DFLer from Roseville, carried the bill in the Senate. Republican Paul Torkelson volunteered to lead it in the House.

Torkelson just happens to be a pork farmer from Hanska and an Agri-Growth member. He and his fellow Republicans — along with select rural DFLers — railed against Dayton's "one-size-fits-all" bill. Ag groups rallied the troops, turning out to confront Dayton at town hall meetings across the state.

"Clean water is a very emotional issue," wrote Joe Smentek, director of environmental affairs for Minnesota Soybean. "But we should not push through legislation that may do nothing more than make some people feel good."

Smentek's words harkened back to the "sound science" ploy, for Dayton's move was more than mushy sentiment.

"I don't have a feeling," says environmental chemist Deborah Swackhamer of the University of Minnesota. "I have a factual understanding. There's quite a lot of science showing that even just a 50-foot buffer, which isn't very big, will on average remove a significant portion of nitrates in the water that runs through that buffer. It's a nice, big bang for your buck."

The Big Ag blowback denied Dayton. Legislators effectively trimmed and neutered his simple approach. The bill they passed gave farmers discretion on the size and location of buffer strips. Violations would be treated with a laughable $500 fine... and only for farmers who had not complied for 11 straight months.

"What was really frustrating about this was the stonewalling of the whole thing," says Morse. "The governor came out and looked at the data, looked at what's happening to our waters, and was very clear that we have some problems with our agricultural systems here and they have to do their part to clean up our water. Basically ag said no and has moved very little from that position."

Republican Rep. Dan Fabian from Roseau summed up Dayton's fatal misstep: "He was willing to do what no other agricultural state governor was willing to do and that is go toe to toe with agriculture."

Lowell Trom has had buffers on his farm for decades "because it makes sense.... The folks fighting it, they shouldn't have to be told to put in buffers. They should know enough to do it on their own. But they're greedy."

One false move and the board gets it

Big Ag's greatest victory was the quick and unceremonious execution of the MPCA's Citizens' Board.

As the last line of defense for Minnesota's environment, the Citizens' Board had long been in the crosshairs of the ag industry. But the final straw came when it took on a 9,350-cow dairy farm last August.

The proposed farm drew complaints from Stevens County residents concerned about hydrogen sulfide, a gas that comes from liquid manure lagoons and causes headaches, nausea, eye irritation, and respiratory problems. There wasn't enough land to apply all the manure the dairy would produce. Nor was there enough groundwater to support the operation.

The Citizens' Board overruled the MPCA, mandating a review of the dairy's effects on water, air, and land. Riverview dropped its proposal altogether.

The state's largest single milk producer, Riverview already has five mega dairy operations here, plus farms in South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska, New Mexico, and Arizona. Workers, mostly laborers on temporary visas procured by Riverview's recruiter in Mexico, live in housing on-site. In 2012, the company received Agri-Growth's Distinguished Service Award.

Big Ag was furious with the Citizens' Board decision.

It lobbied to cut the board's power and limit its authority to order environmental reviews. In the end, Republican Rep. Denny McNamara of Hastings and Iron Range DFL Senator David Tomassoni pushed through a bill to abolish the board.

"Getting rid of that Citizens' Board doesn't make any sense," says Doug Peterson, president of the Minnesota Farmers Union. "It's worked for how many years? And now, because we had one large dairy that didn't like it, so they hired lobbyists to come in and change that law?"

Sen. John Marty watched in horror. Abolishing the Citizens' Board had never been debated. But as the legislative session closed, it was jammed through at the last minute.

"Agribusiness wanted to get rid of it, and so they got rid of it," says Marty. "This was supposed to be a state budget bill, funding for agencies. Not a garbage collection of every kind of policy, some good, mostly bad that somebody wants to slip in there and hold the budget hostage over."

The bill included a Big Ag wish list pitched by House Republicans. They raided environmental funds set aside for landfill cleanup, and raised the agriculture budget by $37.8 million dollars. They demanded the MPCA back up all water quality standards by hiring outside scientists and business folks to prove their worth. They granted amnesty to feedlots that spill liquid manure into waterways so long as they self-report their violations.

The bill also put $8.5 million in research grants directly in the hands of the 22-member Ag Transfer board, which is dominated by Big Ag.

"It's pretty clear that the items that weren't supported by large ag interests got stripped out," says Morse. "It's a dangerous precedent."

Dayton didn't like the smell of that "garbage collection." He vetoed the bill, writing that it "undermines decades of environmental protections." But Dayton's veto was a finger in the dike. House Republicans weren't backing down.

As the special session neared at the beginning of June, Big Ag-backed lawmakers refused to give ground. The Citizens' Board had to go, they said. Any water standards would be subject to cost-effectiveness scrutiny. And the buffer bill would remain a shadow of Dayton's original proposal.

Faced with the prospect of a government shutdown, Dayton signed a bill he hated, admitting that it would unwind years of environmental protection.

In the view of Big Ag, however, it was cause for celebration. Representative Torkelson was a guest speaker at an Agri-Growth luncheon last month, where he boasted of neutering the governor's buffer bill. "The original bill had the DNR drawing buffers on a map and telling landowners, 'You do this or we'll fine you.' We're a long, long, long way from that."

They're also a long way from being finished. Legislation passed this year is a promising start for industry-beholden legislators. Two of the measures that didn't pass — a proposal to make it harder for neighbors to bring nuisance suits against bad acting farms, and a giant property tax break — will both appear in next year's session.

You can count on it, says House Republican Dan Fabian. "Absolutely."

The longer-term agenda — sacrificing the environment for profit — is clear. A new research tentacle of the industry, the Ag Transfer board, ensures Big Ag will dictate the direction of farming for generations to come.

In debates, one senator pushed to add a word, simple but meaningful, to the Ag Transfer board's mission. But it was quietly stripped away in a late-night hearing, never to resurface.

That word was "sustainability."

The word that stayed, defining the board's mission: "productivity."



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