Livestock farmers have last chance to get waiversby Elizabeth Baier, Minnesota Public Radio
Houston, Minn. — A voluntary program to help livestock farmers comply with environmental regulations ends next year and those who haven't made the changes yet have until the end of the week to apply for a waiver. Otherwise, the agreement commits farmers to make improvements by the end of next year.
A small group of state and county officials follows Mike and Joan Gilles through the empty milking parlor of their farm in southeastern Minnesota.
Mike and Joan milk 100 cows, and they're both first-generation farmers.
Mike opens a gate and directs the group to a nearby pole with a dipstick that's marked with red tape.
"This is where the milk house drain flows into now," he says. "There is an 8, 000-gallon concrete tank buried here. It's 16-feet long, 8-feet wide and 12-feet deep. It's a very large tank."
Like thousands of farmers around the state, the Gilles' violated environmental regulations for years without knowing it.
Their farm sits on a slope, which kept their land dry. But it also meant waste water flowed from two septic tanks into a pipe and down the hill before draining on the surface.
To comply with the regulations, the Gilles replaced the septic tanks with one large concrete tank.
When the tank fills up, they pump the waste water out of the ground and into a huge tank on the surface. Then they spread that onto the pasture away from the hill.
"You take 3,000 gallons on 5 acres, it's like a one-hundredth [of an] inch rain. It's nothing to speak of, but it's being applied properly where it's not being run off."
Improving water quality on or nearby farms was the main reason the state established an Open Lot Agreement in 2000. The program targets smaller farmers (those with fewer than 300 animals) so they can improve their waste runoff systems.
But making these changes can cost a lot of money. The Gilles' paid about $80,000, and officials estimate the improvements can be as high as $100,000.
As a result, farmers who signed up for the agreement also agreed to a cost-share program. A 75-to-25 percent split, means the farmer pays 25 percent.
Jim Ostlie, a Livestock Development Specialist with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, said farmers who signed up initially but are still looking for funds can -- and should -- apply for a waiver.
"The whole point of the agreement is to make this flexible for producers and give them time," Ostlie said. "And because of the way the funding has changed and the way programs been redesigned or changed, the program is still remaining flexible in order to bring these feedlots into compliance."
This deadline at the end of October is important because it gives farmers another two years to comply with the rules. If they don't make the improvements, they could face possible enforcement action, including fines.
The Board of Water and Soil Resources estimates it'll cost about $388 million to bring about 5,000 small feedlots into compliance around Minnesota.
Ostlie said 3,000 of those have signed up for the Open Lot Agreement. Many others, like the Gilles, have decided to pay for changes themselves.
"So some producers are going to private engineers throughout the state and are saying 'well, you know, the program that was developed for me is great, but it doesn't fit my budget ... Is there something else that I can do that would bring me into full compliance but is going to cost me less?" Ostlie said.
Mark Gernes, the Winona County Feedlot Officer, works as a liaison between farmers and the state. Gernes said many farmers know when they have a problem on their land, but they don't know exactly what to do to fix it.
"But one of the biggest challenges is probably getting them to figure out what it is that is going to work best for them to address that problem because it isn't always the same on different sites," Gernes said.
Gurness said the goal of the program is to get farmers to comply in a way that's cost-effective for their operation while improving water quality.
- Morning Edition, 10/29/2009, 7:45 a.m.