In a statement released today, DNR to take a closer look at issue of pine forest conversion, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources explained why the state agency would be preparing a document known as a discretionary environmental assessment worksheet (EAW) for an area where the R.D. Offutt Company, America's largest potato company, has been buying forest land and converting it to crop land.
The politically well-connected firm and Offutt family members gave generously in the 2014 state-level campaigns, campaign finance records reveal.
While the company itself gave $50,000 to the Minnesota Jobs Coalition Legislative Fund, which worked via Independent Expenditures (IE) to flip the Minnesota House, two Offutt family members gave to individual contributions to pro-marriage equality state house candidates, all but one of whom were DFLers. Many of the DFL candidates to whom they gave were defeated.
The total Offutt giving to pro-marriage equality House candidates comes to $7,425, of which $6,925.00 went to DFLers. It's just over 10 percent of what the company itself gave to the MN Jobs Coalition Legislative IE Fund to flip the House.
Keith McGovern, an Offutt manager CEO and son-in-law to company chairman emeritus Ron Offutt, gave $2750 exclusively to eight Republican candidates, including the opponent of Ben Lien, a Moorhead DFLer who received contributors from another Offutt family member.
The DNR idles the chainsaws
In DNR to take a closer look at issue of pine forest conversion, the agency said:
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is undertaking a closer examination of a trend in northwestern Minnesota where pine forests are being cut, cleared and converted to potatoes and other rotational croplands.
Because the pine-to-potatoes land conversion could potentially pose a threat to water supplies and impact fish and wildlife for years to come, the DNR will prepare a document known as a discretionary environmental assessment worksheet (EAW).
A North Dakota-based potato processor, R.D. Offutt, has been purchasing and clearing the forest land in four counties: Becker, Cass, Hubbard and Wadena. The DNR estimates that the processor has already purchased about 12,000 acres of pine forests. Some of this land has already been cleared, and the remainder is slated for clearing and conversion to irrigated croplands. The DNR estimates that another 15,000 acres of pine forests have the potential to be sold and converted to crops.
Altogether, the forest lands that have been cleared, or are at risk of being cleared, cover a total area of about 42 square miles – an area approximately covered by the cities of Bemidji, Brainerd and Detroit Lakes combined. Experts say the current rate of forest loss in this region has not been seen in recent memory.
The region’s sandy, permeable soil contributes to the potential impacts from this land conversion. These potential impacts include the risk of crop fertilizers contaminating local water supplies, groundwater overuse, and impacts to fish and wildlife. R.D. Offutt is asking the DNR for permits to construct groundwater wells to irrigate new and future croplands. . . .
Read the rest at the DNR page for the project, Pinelands Water Appropriation Project EAW. According to the page:
The DNR has not yet received an EAW data submittal from the project proposer, which will begin the environmental review process. Once the data submittal has been determined to be complete and the EAW is developed, a 30-day public review of the EAW will begin with publication in the EQB Monitor. The draft EAW will also be posted at this website for public review and comment at that time.
Bluestem will let readers know when the EAW is available for public comment. To get an idea of what the process of converting forest to potato fields involves, it's worth looking through the DNR document embedded below, Conversion of Pine Lands to Irrigated Row Crops (pdf)
Good Stewards or Toxic Taters?
While DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr praised the R.D. Offutt Company's efforts at reducing ag chemical use in its fields even as he put brakes on the project, others, such as the Toxic Taters campaign, have not been as generous in the past.
Nor is this the first time the conversion of jack pine forests to potato acres has generated headlines. In October 2013, Josephine Marcotty at the Star Tribune reported in In central Minnesota, potatoes are pushing out forest land:
Agriculture is eating into central Minnesota’s forests so aggressively that state regulators and a prominent legislator are sounding the alarm about threats to wildlife habitat and a large, sensitive aquifer that stretches below parts of four counties.
The latest case is a 1,500-acre project in Cass County, which triggered a contentious legislative hearing last month over the owner’s plans to grow potatoes for McDonald’s and other customers on land that was covered with trees just 10 years ago.
In recent years, 5,000 to 6,000 acres of pine forests in Cass, Wadena and neighboring counties have been cleared for chemically intensive row-crop agriculture, and state officials say nearly 100 square miles of timber land now owned by Potlatch Corp. is at risk as the company divests itself of commercial forests in Minnesota.
Similar tensions could face the entire state faces as it copes with persistent water contamination and overuse, regulators say. The risk is especially worrisome along the border between traditional farm lands and the forested areas in central Minnesota, where contaminants can percolate straight through sandy soils into groundwater, and from there to trout streams and popular lakes.
Several local communities already face huge costs to taxpayers in their struggle to find drinking water that is not contaminated with agricultural fertilizer.
“Groundwater and drinking water have not been issues until recently,” said Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, chair of the House committee that held hearings this month. “But that’s the public conversation I want to have.”
Given the scale of the project now underway, Wagenius wasn't overreacting with her concern. But there's more in the 2013 article that should give readers pause:
R.D. Offutt’s project in Cass County is a case that shows what’s at stake and the powerful forces driving land conversion. It also has focused the legislature’s attention on an increasingly difficult question on the environmental impacts: Who should pay?
Offutt, based in Fargo, is the nation’s largest potato grower and a supplier to McDonald’s and other food companies. The Freshwater Society, a Minnesota environmental group, found in a recent analysis that Offutt is the largest single irrigator in the state, with rights to pump up to 12 billion gallons of water per year on 30,000 acres.
Recently, it acquired 1,459 acres of cleared commercial forest land from Potlatch, pulled out the stumps, drilled four deep wells and installed high-capacity pumps.
“I was speechless,” said Jeff Broberg, a geologist who sits on a legislative advisory committee and saw the work underway this summer while on a site visit. On one side of the road was an aspen forest full of birds and blueberries, he said. On the other, he said, “the habitat destruction was complete. It might as well have been pavement after that.”
Rising land prices
At the October hearing, Keith McGovern, an Offutt manager, said the company does not intend to increase its potato production. Offutt bought the land so it could improve crop rotation on other fields — which can be better for the soil and the environment — without reducing its overall potato supply to a plant it co-owns in Park Rapids.
(Keith McGovern is the son-in-law of Ronald Offutt, emeritus CEO of RDO, so that wasn't just a branch manager.)
In short, the company is stripping Minnesota of tens of thousands of its forest lands in order to make the soil safe for crop rotations.
And as is clear from the 2013 report to Thursday's action, the scale of the deforestation has grown. For other reports, check out the Associated Press's report in the Strib, Minnesota agency puts brakes on conversion of pine forests to potato fields and Zach Kayser's article in the Bemidji Pioneer, Pine forests into potato fields: DNR temporarily halts N.D. company's clear-cutting of Minnesota woods.
Pine, potatoes and politics: Offutt money in Minnesota's 2014 campaigns
How much did the Offutt Company and members of the Offutt family spend to remove Jean Wagenius from the Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Finance Committee that she chaired in 2013-2014? While we might have missed something due to misspellings in campaign reports, we estimed just over $46,000.
Bluestem recalled that the R.D. Offutt Company gave $50,000 to the MN Jobs Coalition Legislative Fund in September 2014, a state-level PAC whose independent expenditures played a key role in flipping the Minnesota House of Representatives from DFL to Republican control.
One of the mantra's of the new Republican majority in the Minnesota House is the joy of Big Agriculture and the loosening of regulatory review. We're not quite sure how much looser this process might get for the plowing of former pinelands into potato fields other than setting Commissioner Landwehr himself on a backhoe and letting him rip out trees himself, but perhaps Offutt, which also sells farm and heavy equipment, has another way.
But it's not just the corporation that gave money to a Republican-allied PAC. Christi Offutt, now CEO chairperson of RDO and Ryan Offutt, also gave generously, in $500 or $475 contributions, for a total of $6,925 $7,425 legislative races. (In the gubernatorial race, chairman emeritus Ron Offutt gave the Jeff Johnson campaign $2000, while his daughter contributed $3000 to Governor Dayton's campaign).
To DFL candidates in swing districts--and Eden Prairie Republican Jennifer Loon for her primary against Sheila Kihne.
Update: Christi Offutt gave Ben Lien (DFL-Moorhead) $500 in June (year end report available here). That brings the total Offutt giving to pro-marriage equality House candidates to $7,425, of which $6,925.00 went to DFLers. It's just over 10 percent of what the company itself gave to the MN Jobs Coalition Legislative IE Fund to flip the House.
Dorholt, Erickson, Faust, Morgan and Savick all lost, while Lien, Loon and Selcer retained their offices. The one thread that we can see with the giving is that all of the candidates voted for marriage equality.
Keith McGovern, Ron Offutt's son-in-law, gave $2750 to eight Republican candidates:
09-16-2014 Fabian, Daniel E House Dist. 1A 250.00
09-17-2014 McNamara, Dennis (Denny) House Dist. 54B 250.00
09-17-2014 Gramer, Brian English House Dist. 4A 500.00
09-19-2014 Kiel, Debra (Deb) L House Dist. 1B 250.00
09-19-2014 Green, Steve House Dist. 2B 250.00
09-20-2014 Torkelson, Paul M House Dist. 16B 500.00
09-22-2014 Anderson, Paul H House Dist. 12B 500.00
09-25-2014 Hamilton, Rod House Dist. 22B 250.00
We'll also check to see where the candidates that the Offutt family supported were on the Farm and Food pledge that the Agri-Growth Council put together.
It's not surprising to see this giving pattern from the younger Offutts, as Christi Offutt's giving record at the Federal Election Commission (FEC) showed that although she had given to the Bush campaign, her more recent contributions to federal candidates went to Democratic candidates. Ron Offutt gives reliably to Republicans, with the exception of contributions to Collin Peterson.
Photo: A jackpine woods. Via Minnesota DNR.
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