by CHRIS ROGERS
Every spring for the last nearly 25 years, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT) would send Lewistonite Richard Ahrens a letter. Inside was an agreement, which he signed and sent back, promising to keep invasive, noxious weeds from growing in the roadside ditches along his Highway 14 property and to mow the ditch so plants didn’t obscure drivers’ sight. In exchange, Mn/DOT wouldn’t spray herbicides on the ditches next to Ahrens’ property, including organic gardens he and his wife raise and 80 acres of cropland they rent out to organic farmers.
This spring, Ahrens didn’t get a letter. He didn’t think much of it, figuring Mn/DOT staff — like other Minnesotans — were probably overwhelmed in the pandemic’s chaotic early months. Then, on September 1, Ahrens was working on his barn when he spotted something. “Here there’s this guy spraying with a hand sprayer on the ditch,” he said.
It was a Mn/DOT worker. Ahrens said he tried to talk to the man, but he drove off. “Two days later, a truck was up there and two guys were out there taking out the ‘do not spray’ signs,” Ahrens stated.
Halfway to Utica, Highway 14 resident David Weissing had a similar experience. A man in a Mn/DOT truck stopped along his property on September 1 and pulled out the “do not spray” signs.
Weissing and Ahrens are part of a small number landowners — just seven across Southeast Minnesota, according Mn/DOT District Six Communications Director Mike Dougherty — who have these no-spray agreements with Mn/DOT. Such deals are more common on county and township roads, especially next to organic farms. Organic certification requires a 50-foot buffer strip around organic fields, in which no synthetic herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers may be used. These no-spray agreements allow organic farmers to count the road ditch as part of the buffer — giving them more usable land. In exchange, state and local governments don’t have to spend as much on spraying those sections of ditches.
Neither Ahrens nor his renter got any warning from Mn/DOT that were ending the agreement or that they would be spraying the ditch. Weissing didn’t either. Ahrens wondered aloud, “Why weren’t we told this?”
The spraying of the ditch meant that the organic farmers growing hay on Ahrens’ land couldn’t use a 50-foot-wide swath of their fields nearest the highway. “Monetarily, it’s probably a couple thousand dollars or better, but that’s not it. It’s the certification,” Ahrens said of the impact of that spraying on his tenants’ farming operation. “If I wouldn’t have caught that guy spraying and [the farmer] had cut that hay, he could have lost his certification.” If that farmer fed the hay to his cattle, then his whole organic cattle operation could have been in jeopardy.
A hobby farmer, Weissing’s livelihood wasn’t on the line, but he still doesn’t want conventional herbicides sprayed on the ditch next to his garden, small pasture, and fruit trees. A chemist by training, Weissing said he worked for years in the pharmaceutical industry. He added of the compounds in common herbicides, “I know how hard we worked when in the laboratory to avoid exposure to these things.”
When he saw them pulling out the signs, Ahrens asked the men at his ditch what was going on. He recalled their response: “The state isn’t going to have this anymore. This program is done.”
Weissing asked the Mn/DOT staffer at his property the same thing. “He said, ‘Because the program is discontinued,’” Weissing reported.
Richard Ahrens’ son, Tim Ahrens, helped his dad look into what was going on. Tim Ahrens said he spoke to Mn/DOT Maintenance Supervisor Andrew Fischbach. “He told me that he made the decision to end the program after input,” Tim Ahrens stated, adding that it was input from sprayer operators.
Fischbach told the Winona Post the program had not been ended, but was under review. “Some of the early communications may have misstated my intent, but it was never intended to be just a hard end to it,” he said. The fact that Fischbach’s office didn’t send out the normal forms in the spring was an oversight due to the pandemic, he explained. He confirmed that signs were removed and a 1,400-feet-long stretch of ditch near Lewiston was sprayed without contacting landowners.
“We removed them because of some of the input I was receiving from the spray operators in the field,” Fischbach said of the decision to take out the no-spray signs. “With the absence of the agreement going out this year, I thought that it may be a good time to take a look at this program … I wanted to make sure it was meeting all of the current standards Mn/DOT has both in regards to the noxious and prohibited weeds on the [Minnesota Department of Agriculture] list, look at Mn/DOT safety protocols with regards to the clear zone, and make sure that everything was analyzed to meet what is needed in 2020 moving forward.”
On county roads, some Winona County officials have reported problems with landowners not keeping up their side of the no-spray deal: suppressing weeds. There are sections of roadside ditches that are overrun with invasive species like wild parsnip, but the Ahrens and Weissing properties are not one of those. “I thought we did a good job. And in 25 years, we never had one complaint,” Ahrens said.
Why did Mn/DOT decide to pull all the signs if the no-spray agreements were just under review and not being discontinued? “I think the decision to remove the signs was to take a look at the program,” Fischbach responded.
As for not contacting landowners beforehand, Fischbach acknowledged, “Looking back on that, that was a mistake that I did make. I should have been more cognizant of the importance of the communication and bringing it forward to the landowners to explain what was going on and the direction that I was looking to go, so they were not taken aback by the fact that the signs were gone.”
Asked whether Mn/DOT would offer no-spray agreements next year, Fischbach said Mn/DOT was putting together a team of Mn/DOT staffers who would study the program, seek landowner input, and keep landowners updated on whether Mn/DOT would continue the program.
Weissing was skeptical of the claim that the program was just under review. “They’re not reviewing it; they already made the decision,” he said. As for what he hopes Mn/DOT will do, Weissing stated, “I’d want them to put the signs back and honor the agreements.”
“The lack of communication was frustrating but we’re not trying to grind an axe. We just want to continue with the program,” Tim Ahrens said. “It seems like a win-win partnership, kind of an example of the state and the farmers working together,” he added.
Land Stewardship Project (LSP) organizer Connor Dunn said he was organizing discussions with Mn/DOT about the no-spray agreements and encouraged affected farmers to contact LSP.