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Ditch mowing legislation delayed another year, debate rages on

Coated in dew, ditch grasses reflect the rising morning sunlight on Wednesday, June 8, 2016. Nick Nelson / Forum News Service1 / 2
Donovon Johnson of rural Pennock mows a ditch northwest off Willmar long before the practice became controversial in 2017. Johnson said that after 35 years of mowing these ditches that he knows where every culvert and post can be found. Ron Adams / Forum News Service2 / 2

ST. PAUL—Minnesotans know farmers are upset about state-mandated buffers next to water, but that is nothing compared to what many rural legislators are hearing about state regulation of highway ditch mowing.

On one side of the mowing battle are farmers who say they are saving the state millions of dollars by mowing ditches for what they say is a relatively small amount of low-quality hay. On the other side are environmentalists who want to limit mowing as protection for small animals, including bees and butterflies, and the Minnesota Department of Transportation, with a desire to keep mowing next to highways safe.

That divide remains after a year of meetings involving all sides of the issue, meetings that were supposed to resolve the problem. Key rural legislators say they expect to offer legislation to delay state ditch mowing oversight another year to allow more time to figure out a solution.

"We're still not clear what to tell the farmers this year," said Thom Petersen, the Minnesota Farmers' Union lobbyist and farmer who was active in mowing meetings.

President Krist Wollum of the Minnesota State Cattlemen's Association was more blunt about the past year's talks: "To me, I think it has been a waste of time."

The Legislature last year passed a law placing a moratorium on the state enforcing a law requiring permits to mow ditches, a law on the books three decades but not enforced. The intention was to come back in this legislative session with a bill to clarify the situation. But a recently released MnDOT report did little to clarify anything, rural legislators and leaders of farm groups say.

Assistant MnDOT Commissioner Nancy Daubenberger said the report her department released summarized much of the discussion at a series of meetings around the state, but only recommends changes to the permitting process.

While farmers do not like being required to obtain permits, the real issue to many is when they can mow ditches and bale hay. Under current law, they are not allowed to mow any time other than during August.

"The feed quality after Aug. 1, it gets to be very rank," Wollum said.

To illustrate that ditch hay is of lower quality, Petersen said that it often brings half as much money at actions as regular field hay. And, he said, it costs more to harvest.

A pair of southwest Minnesota Republican legislators who led last year's moratorium legislation—Sen. Gary Dahms of Redwood Falls and Rep. Chris Swedzinski of Ghent—were not happy with MnDOT's report.

Dahms said that while the report did a good job of summarizing the meetings, it did not provide the expected recommendations about how to proceed on the issue.

Swedzinski said agriculture's voices were not heard.

He said landowners along the rural parts of 12,000 miles of state and federal highways must get permits, but not those in cities. The lawmaker said many farmers think that city homeowners along state highways also should get permits when they mow their lawns if that is required in farm country.

Daubenberger said farmers who want to mow ditches would have an easier time dealing with permits under MnDOT's recommendations. The permit law does not apply to ditches along county and township roads.

The applications will be available online, but also on paper in MNDOT district offices, she said. And someone mowing the ditches no longer will need to have a paper permit with them; instead, they can have a copy on a phone.

People mowing ditches next to their farms would not be required to get permits annually.

Plus, she said, few people would have to pay security deposits.

Daubenberger said one of the biggest changes at MnDOT will be improving communications, especially with farm groups.

She said some vegetation has been planted specifically to help pollinators, such as bees and butterflies, and should not be cut.

A letter from MnDOT Commissioner Charles Zelle discussed the need to protect small animals that often depend on grass in ditches for habitat.

However, ditch grass must be cut.

One reason is for road safety in winter because tall grass could cause drifts. Also, the state has a responsibility to get rid of weeds before they spread seeds, so must either cut them down or spray them with chemicals. Spraying is suspected as being one reason pollinators are struggling to survive.

Agriculture groups say farmers mowing and baling in ditches remove those weeds, saving the state millions of dollars.

The difficult part is determining when mowing should be allowed.

Birds and other small animals may nest or otherwise use ditches in the spring. Pollinators may use them in different times of the year.

One potential solution that has been discussed quite a bit over the past year is "mow some, save some." The concept is that farmers could cut about half the ditch at any time, but leave the rest for habitat.

However, that would provide less hay for farmers and environmentalists tend to want the entire ditch undisturbed.

Such decisions will be up to the Legislature, perhaps in 2019.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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