Rep. Jeff Backer tries to blame Minnesota's ag pollution on... goose shit

Backer tried to make geese the fall guys for farm pollution that is leaving many Minnesota lakes too toxic to swim in.

Backer tried to make geese the fall guys for farm pollution that is leaving many Minnesota lakes too toxic to swim in. Kurt Bauschardt

Earlier this month, Gov. Mark Dayton proposed new checks on farm fertilizers in order to reduce nitrate in Minnesota's drinking water. Agricultural runoff is poisoning wells, feeding the algae invasion of southeastern Minnesota's lakes and rivers, suffocating fish, and contributing to an oxygen-depleted dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

The new rule would restrict the use of nitrogen-based fertilizers in the fall and winter in areas with porous soil, which are most vulnerable to groundwater pollution.

"Farmers contribute to the social and economic fabric of our state. A key ingredient to a strong and successful farm economy is indeed access to clean water. After all, good water makes good food," said Department of Agriculture Commissioner David Frederickson during an agriculture committee hearing on March 15.

"We do have a problem with nitrates in our groundwater, and as policymakers we have a legal and moral obligation to address it."

But large farmers, in particular corn growers who feed their crops a nitrogen-heavy diet, aren't so keen on fertilizer restrictions.

In response, Rep. Jeff Backer (R-Browns Valley) introduced a bill that would take away the Department of Agriculture's authority to enforce the rule short of it being ratified into law by the legislature. He argued that farmers would have better rights to due process if their fertilizer battles ended up in front of district court juries instead of administrative law judges.

He also tried to blame the state's water pollution problems on... goose shit.

"All the geese and waterfowl that migrate, rest, nest in Minnesota, poop in the lakes and in the surrounding fields," Backer said during the agriculture committee hearing.

"The poop contains a lot of nitrates. If we allow septic tanks or feedlots to drain directly into a lake or river, we would be up in arms. MDA has not even mentioned the migration of waterfowl contaminating our lakes and fields. Or any wildlife. So again, we have to look at how that affects our nitrates."

On Wednesday when the bill was heard at the Government Operations and Elections Policy meeting, Backer repeated his theory that the agriculture department's scientists should take a closer look at certain avian suspects.

"[The Department of Agriculture] did a study. They didn't include all the geese and waterfowl that migrate to Minnesota and poop in the surrounding fields, which we know produces a lot of nitrogen," he said.

Rep. Michael Nelson (DFL-Brooklyn Park) wouldn't let the statement go unchallenged.

"I can't believe what ... um, that geese are what's causing the problem," he snapped back. "Maybe we should put more hunters out there hunting them. It reminds me of a statement by President Reagan in the past, where he blamed global warming on cow flatulence. ... With the testimony that we had from the author, I cannot support this bill."

Rep. Jim Nash (R-Waconia) couldn't help himself either.

"For staff, is goose poop found in statute? I'm just trying to make sure how to word that in the bill."

"I'm sure it's not," replied committee chair Tim O'Driscoll (R-Sartell).

The Department of Agriculture has referenced extensive research by the University of Minnesota on nitrogen fertilizer's role in groundwater contamination, and in 2013 the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency published a detailed study, "Nitrogen in Minnesota Surface Waters," which included a shoutout to bird shit.

According to that study, geese are an example of a "very low [nitrogen] contributor," responsible for "approximately 0.1 percent of the statewide nitrogen load to waters."

Sonja and Doug Eayrs, small farmers who showed up to the Government Operations and Elections Policy equipped with maps showing parallels between impaired waters and Minnesota's 18,000 registered factory farms, also testified against the bill.

"[Backer's] comments are an insult to the intelligence of every Minnesotan, especially when we are confronting a public health crisis," Sonja said. "Twenty-one percent of the wells in Dodge County show high nitrate levels. At my husband’s family farm in rural Dodge County, we have not been able to drink the water for years."