ST. PAUL - Everyone knows that weather and prices concern farmers, but it surprises many people that mowing roadside ditches has become a top issue in farm country.
It is a big enough concern that the state Legislature slapped a moratorium until May of 2018 on the Minnesota Department of Transportation requiring permits to mow ditches along 12,000 miles of state roads. In the coming month, seven meetings around the state are expected to be packed with farmers who want freedom to turn grass in the ditches into bales of hay and environmentalists who want to leave the grass and other plants standing.
"I have heard from a large number of people in our area who are frustrated by this issue and see it as just the latest example of a top-down push by out-of-touch bureaucrats," Rep. Chris Swedzinski, R-Ghent, said. "Now it is important for people who have concerns to show up at this meeting so they can be part of the decision-making process."
Swedzinski spearheaded the effort earlier this year to delay the MnDOT plan to require permits to bale ditches.
A law regulating ditch mowing long has been on the books, but not enforced. Last year, MnDOT decided to enforce it.
"Having local landowners mow, and bale hay if they choose, in the right of way can be mutually beneficial," MnDOT's Steve Lund said at the time. "But we want to ensure that it is done at the right time of year to make sure we are protecting habitat for wildlife and pollinators. And we want to ensure that those who mow and harvest hay are doing so safely."
Environmentalists say ditch plants provide habitat for all kinds of animals, from insects to small mammals. Bees and monarch butterflies are of particular concern, since their numbers have shrinking in Minnesota.
The state governs right-of-way next it its roads, although landowners may control land next to county and township roads. The law and the permits only apply to ditches by state roads.
Republican House members sent out news releases in recent days encouraging farmers to attend the MnDOT listening sessions that begin Oct. 30.
"This is an important issue for people I talk with and this is their chance to provide input," Rep. Paul Anderson, R-Starbuck, said.
Anderson and Swedzinski are two of the few farmers in the Legislature.
"This is a challenging issue," said MnDOT Assistant Commissioner Nancy Daubenberger said. "The right of way serves many purposes, all of them valid. We want to ensure that we address all the needs, including the safety of roadway users, as best we can. We need the public's help to identify the best route to follow."
Here are the listening sessions (all are 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. except for Marshall and St. Cloud, which are 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.):
• Oct. 30, University of Minnesota Crookston, Bede Ballroom.
• Nov. 8, Marshall, Marshall Middle School, 401 S. Saratoga St.
• Nov. 9, St. Cloud, MnDOT Conference Center, 3725 12th St. N.
• Nov. 14, North Mankato, South Central College, 1920 Lee Blvd.
• Nov. 15, Morris, University of Minnesota Conference Room, 600 E. Fourth St.
• Nov. 16, Arden Hills, MnDOT Training Center, 1900 County Road I.
• Nov. 20, Baxter, MnDOT Baxter, 7694 Industrial Park Road.