Dennis Anderson
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Dennis Anderson

A couple of years back on a winter’s day I tagged along with a few rabbit hunting experts in search of the main course for a holiday feast. It was mid-December, in the southern part of the state, and our youngest companion, the .410-toting Evan Woytcke, then only 11, proved to be the outing’s deadeye.

Leading our stalwart bunny brigade were John Dzik and Scott Herzog of the Twin Cities, and as we moved from farmstead to farmstead, some abandoned, some not, our intent was to roust a rabbit in the direction of a posted gun, or, alternatively, wait for our quarry to circle behind us, whereupon we might get a shot.

We had scoured a few spots, some with luck, before we pulled into the home place of a farm not too far from Fairfax, Minn., population 1,138. On site was Dave Rieke, a genial corn and soybean producer whose great grandfather settled in the area in 1865.

The crops that Rieke and his son, Jake, had produced that year on their 900-acre Renville County farm had long since been harvested, of course, this being December, so the wide, 50-foot grass buffers that stretched alongside the operation’s lengthy water-drainage ditches were readily apparent.

Minnesota’s stream- and ditch-buffering law had been in practical effect for only a year or so at the time, and these heavily grassed buffers obviously had been established much longer than that.

Passed by the Legislature at the urging of then-Gov. Mark Dayton, the state’s buffer law was intended to reduce farmland runoff, thereby helping to clean up rivers and other waters. The buffers also would produce much-needed wildlife habitat in a part of Minnesota that has lost hundreds of thousands of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) set-aside acres.

Dave Rieke, who has been on his township board for 47 years, chuckled when I asked about the buffers’ origins.

“I sent my kids off to college, and they came back with all kinds of ideas,” he said.

Which was in part true: Rieke’s sons, Jake and Carl, and daughters, Stacey and Denise, did attend Hamline and St. Olaf universities. And they learned plenty.

But the buffers that align some 2 miles of ditches (counting both sides) on the Riekes’ place actually were established beginning in the 1990s, and the elder Rieke can be credited for the initial action.

“We raise hogs in addition to crops,’’ Rieke said. “Because we do, we file manure management plans, and establishment of buffers was recommended as part of those plans. But now we’re absolutely in favor of buffers. These 5-inch rainfalls we’ve gotten? If you don’t have a buffer alongside a stream or ditch, you’re going to pour a lot of nitrates into that water.”

More and more farmers agree with Rieke, said John Jaschke, executive director of the Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR), which wrote the buffer law’s rules and guidelines.

“Some landowners had established buffers on their own, before the law was passed,” Jaschke said. “Then, after the law, when it became clear everyone had to establish buffers where they were required, most remaining landowners just did it and were done with it.”

County Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCDs) are charged with helping landowners establish buffers and monitoring them afterward.

“Minnesota’s buffer law was passed in 2015, and in that year, and in 2016, there was frustration among some landowners and farmers who felt the law just ‘appeared,’ ” said Renville County SWCD manager Holly Hatlewick. “But definitely, they’ve come around. Our farmers have done a great job of accepting and moving forward.”

Public waters, as defined by the Department of Natural Resources, must be buffered by permanent vegetation at least 30 feet wide, with an average of 50 feet. Public ditches, meanwhile, which typically are man-made or man-altered, require 16.5-foot buffers.

Regulations governing the two are a bit complicated. The short story is that some farmers and other landowners who wanted financial and other help establishing the wider buffers entered into cost-sharing or other payment agreements with the state and/or federal governments.

Alongside public ditches, meanwhile, local ditch authorities or other government agencies often buy from landowners 16.5-foot access rights. Buffers are established in those margins that farmers can hay, if they choose. In exchange, the authorities gain the right to maintain the ditches.

Tom Gile, BWSR resource conservation section manager, said that while a relative handful of farmers and other landowners still oppose the buffer law, “tens of thousands” have come into compliance in the past three years.

“On public waters, our compliance is now over 99 percent statewide,’’ Gile said. “On public ditches, compliance is higher than 96 percent.”

Initially, Gile said, some farmers complained that because strips of land alongside their streams and/or ditches sloped upward, preventing runoff, buffers in those areas weren’t necessary. But BWSR and SWCD technicians developed alternative practices that achieved the same or similar conservation goals as those in more typical buffering situations.

“We’ve been able to develop workarounds when necessary,” Gile said.

Though buffers on the Riekes’ farm weren’t solely Jake’s or his siblings’ idea, Jake, a partner in the operation since 2010, is a believer in their benefits.

“The buffers prevent sediment from getting into the ditches,’’ he said. “They also provide habitat for birds.”

And rabbits — as the .410-toting Evan Woytcke can attest.

Dennis Anderson • danderson@startribune.com