Farmer David Vipond’s worries about the impact of
go beyond his current situation and more toward the future for his family and conventional agriculture in the region.
On May 5, 2023, the White Earth Reservation Business Committee — the governing body for the White Earth Band of Chippewa’s reservation — passed a new water resolution and ordinance that required farmers who wish to irrigate on the reservation or within a five-mile zone around it to apply for a tribal permit
, in addition to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources permit.
“This doesn’t just affect me,” Vipond said. “I’m getting close to retirement age. But my sons and grandsons probably need this battle fought. It’s bigger than me. It’s the whole area. It’s everybody that farms in and around the reservation. It affects everybody. This is about the future of agriculture in our area.”
Vipond and others believe the tribe’s bigger aim is to stop conventional farming in general and may be focused on the R.D. Offutt farms, just on the east side of the reservation. On her Linkedin site, Jamie Konopacky, the White Earth Band’s outside counsel on environmental issues and a former in-house attorney for the band, praised a recent New York Times article called
RDO is a major supplier of potatoes to McDonald’s Restaurants.
The Times story discusses that in the drought summer of 2021, farmers in the area “blew through limits” and pumped 6.1 billion gallons of water more than their permitted amounts, and noted that one-third of the overuse was on R.D. Offutt farms.
, said the company under-uses its allocations 97% of the time. The company has 500 wells in the region, many of which tap the Pineland Sands Aquifer. The aquifer levels came back, he said, and Offutt overpumped only 1.5% of their permit.
Jess Richards, assistant commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said enforcement laws have changed since 2021. Until two years ago, the law allowed only “forgivable fines” of up to $20,000.
“We weren’t allowed to collect those fines as long as they corrected whatever the violation was,” he said. “The new administrative penalty order authority, which we haven’t used yet, allows for $40,000, and then, if it’s a serious or repeat situation, that can be non-forgiveable.”
There are additional fines for an egregious violation.
‘Who’s going to farm here?’
Vipond grew up near Herman, Minnesota, where five brothers still farm. His is a classic story of agricultural success and achievement.
After receiving his soil science degree in 1979 from North Dakota State University, he started working at Centrol, a crop consulting branch of farmer-owned cooperative CHS. He moved in 1988 to Mahnomen, Minnesota, to manage a wheat, barley and soybean farm from Donna and Harris Viker of Roseville, Minnesota. The Vikers added sugarbeets in 1991 as part of an American Crystal Sugar Co. expansion. The Vikers initially shared equipment with Kelly and Perry Skaurud of Gary, Minnesota, whose Skaurud Grain Farm Inc. headquarters is just outside the White Earth Reservation in Norman County, Minnesota.
Vipond started his own farm in 2000 on about 700 acres. It now has grown to 1,200 acres, of which 800 acres is on the White Earth Reservation on “fee patent” land, which means that a tribal member received an initial allotment of property on the reservation and the property changed hands until Vipond became the owner.
Vipond in 2001 started a Pioneer dealership and later a crop insurance company, now all under ProAg Services Inc. He is a Marsh Creek township officer and is on the board of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, which has no part in the dispute.
Vipond’s improvements to his farm included in 2019 acquiring a permit from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to irrigate 100 acres out of Spring Creek, which feeds into the Wild Rice River. The permit process took less than two months and he remembers that the tribe had no comment. He said the predictable water and “spoon-feeding” of fertilizer to the crops helped increase yields by 35%.
Now, he waits to see what will happen with his permit to irrigate 353 acres adjacent to the Wild Rice River. He applied for the permit in August from Minnesota DNR but now is the first farmer to fight whether he needs a permit from the White Earth Band of Chippewa under the band’s water ordinance.
Vipond believe’s the band’s duplication of regulation in the long run will reduce value of land on the reservation.
“Who’s going to farm here?” he said. He wonders if the tribe
The cost of dealing with the issue in courts is going to be “big money,” he said, and “more than my farm can stand.”
Vipond hopes the issue can be resolved in two to five years, but acknowledges it may take longer. His sons see the scope and potential impact on their other ag-related businesses. If White Earth Nation prevails, he believes it eventually will cut the value of land on the reservation. Vipond wonders if that’s the goal.
Levi Liebl, a partner with Hanson & Liebl Law Office in Mahnomen, Minnesota, initially advised Vipond not to respond to the demand for tribal permit on grounds the tribe does not have “personal jurisdiction” over Vipond as a “fee patent” owner, Liebl said.
Liebl, who is licensed and has experience in tribal court, said he’ll contend that while Vipond resides on and owns property on the reservation, he is not subject to ordinances like the groundwater ordinance the tribe is imposing.
Hanson & Liebl did, however, advise Vipond to respond to the tribal court civil summons. If there is an adverse result, Liebl expected they would appeal to the tribe, and then federal district court if necessary. And higher than that.
Not standing alone
Other farmers are supportive of Vipond’s efforts to fight the ordinance.
Ross Opsahl of Twin Valley, Minnesota, is finance manager for the Skaurud Grain Farms Inc., of Gary, Minnesota, a seven-partner, diversified grain farm and row crop farm of about 20,000 acres. About a third of SGF Inc. is in Mahnomen County, on the White Earth Reservation, another third is outside the reservation in the 5-mile perimeter, and one-third is beyond it. SGF irrigates 3.5% of its acres on state permits first approved in 2013, and sees foot-dragging on another permit that would take the farm to 7% irrigated.
Opsahl said Minnesota DNR permitting seems to have slowed as the tribe has become more active in opposing it. In 2019, a Minnesota DNR permit took 90 to 120 days. One SGF permit on an irrigation permit outside the reservation would irrigate 500 acres and has been in limbo about 650 days. He fears the tribe is chasing away livestock operations that would provide badly needed economic development, employment and residents.
Besides his agricultural work, Opsahl has chaired the Norman County East school district for 15 years. The first Riverview LLC farm, a $50,000 investment, was estimated to bring 10 new students to the district’s 210. The rejected 20,000-cow dairy would have brought in an $80 million investment.
Neal Pederson, 60, and Earl, 57, operate Pederson Brothers Farms of Bejou, Minnesota, a farm their great-grandfather homesteaded in the late 1800s. Five families make their living off of 30,000 acres, including 5,000 acres in the reservation boundaries and 1,500 acres within the 5-mile perimeter. Neal has two sons who work on the farm. Earl has 11 children, including five sons who work on the farm. The Pedersons farm right on the Norman/Mahnomen County line.
On Jan. 18, 2023, Minnesota DNR told the Pedersons the agency had completed the initial review for a new well to water 137 acres, just on the western edge of the reservation. On the strength of that word, the Pedersons spent $40,000 on a project that is now in limbo because of the tribal requirement.
Neal Pederson said he only wants one entity to deal with. He thinks Minnesota DNR has more experience, and he thinks they would be better at it.
“If there was just one entity that has control, let’s decide who has control, let’s decide if it’s the (Minnesota) DNR or the tribe. I would be just fine with that,” he said.
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