No farmer ever wants to see the inside of a courtroom.
But, next month, Glen's dad, Vern, will face a judge to defend himself against charges filed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
To me, the case is a ridiculous waste of taxpayer dollars. I don't know any other farmer who cares more about protecting the environment than Vern. His land has been enrolled in one conservation program or another for as long as I've known Glen, and probably for many years longer. Vern participates in the Conservation Security Program and faithfully waits until July 1, when the wildlife nesting season is over, to cut designated hayfields. He no-tills all of his crops to prevent erosion. And he's been no-tilling for decades - he started way before no-tilling became popular.
This case is also a sad display of the inability of the DNR to work with farmers, instead of against them. Most farmers care about our natural resources as much as any government agency or organization. We should all be working together to find common sense solutions for protecting our resources, not fighting in courtrooms.
The case all started with the county ditches that run through Vern's land in Todd County.
In August 2012, Vern got a statement in the mail with fees for ditch inspection. He called the ditch inspector and asked why he was being charged for inspection when his ditches had never been inspected.
So, the county ditch inspector came out to inspect the ditches. The inspector and Vern talked about cleaning out the ditches. Vern said he didn't think ditch cleaning was allowed. She assured him that it was.
Vern obtained the permits necessary to remove brush and sediment from the ditches from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
With the necessary permits in hand, Vern hired a contractor to remove brush and sediment from the ditches. The work was done in the spring of 2013 before the ground thawed. As part of the clearing process, the bulldozed brush and sediment were pushed into windrows.
Apparently, the Minnesota DNR doesn't like brush piles. In July of 2013, Vern was cited for piling brush in Type 2 and Type 6 Wetlands and ordered to burn the brush.
[Most of Vern's Todd County land was once tillable cropland, thanks to the ditch system that drained the land. But after the City of Grey Eagle installed its storm sewer system in the 1980s, County Ditch 6 was overwhelmed with water, leaving most of Vern's land too wet to farm during wet years. The area where the brush was piled used to be considered a field, but the government now classifies it as a restricted used wetland.]
Vern was given either 30 days to appeal the order (with a minimum filing fee of $500) or until Dec. 31 of 2013 to comply with the order to burn the brush. He chose to comply with the order.
But, by the time Vern finished harvesting his crops last fall - or didn't finish, actually, since one of his corn fields was snowed in before it could be combined - the amount of snow on the ground made it nearly impossible to burn the brush piles, especially with the large amounts of sediment from the ditch bottoms. Vern asked for, and was granted, an extension that gave him until Jan. 31, 2014 to burn the brush. Another extension was granted in January, moving the deadline to Feb. 28.
On Feb. 27, Vern left voice messages for the conservation officer handling his case to ask for another extension. Vern's phone records show that he called twice on Feb. 27 and once on Feb. 28. The conservation officer did not return his calls.
His phone records also show that he called another conservation officer in the area and the district conservation office on Feb. 28 because he hadn't heard back from the conservation officer handling his case. Both the other conservation officer and the district office told him they could not help and that he had to work with the conservation office handling the case.
In March, Vern attempted to burn the brush twice, with only partial success. In April, Vern obtained burning permits and attempted to burn the brush twice more. (Burning permits were not required in March.)
On June 9, Vern was served papers to appear in court for failure to comply with orders from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
On June 30, I went along with Vern to the Todd County Courthouse for his arraignment. He pled not guilty to the charges. His case will now appear before a judge on Aug. 4. If the judge rules against Vern, he will be considered guilty of a misdemeanor and face a fine of up 1,000 dollars and/or 90 days in jail.
I have a few questions about the case:
Why didn't the conservation officer return Vern's phone calls on Feb. 27 and 28? And why couldn't anyone else from the DNR help with the case?
Why couldn't the brush piles be allowed to decompose naturally?
Why are piles of brush in a wetland even considered a problem? The Minnesota Dept. of Agriculture's Livestock Environmental Quality Assurance (LEQA) Program encourages farmers to leave piles of brush on their land to increase wildlife habitat.
I realize that these questions will most likely never be answered, since multiple government agencies would be involved in finding the answers.
But one question will be answered by the judge on Aug. 4: Not guilty or guilty?
I'll provide an update on the case after the trial. Until then, please join me in hoping that common sense will prevail.