Don’t Muddy the Waters: Stop Trampling on the Definition of 'Pasture'

Minnesota's state leaders have the power and responsibility to act in the best interest of all Minnesotans, as well as our water and land. We rely on our state to ensure we have safe water to drink, clean air to breathe, and healthy land to pass down to the next generation. But right now, Big Ag interests are working hard to write special laws for themselves at the expense of the rest of us.

I know that family livestock farmers like me respect the inherent value of our land. We want to leave our farms better than when we found them, and make sure all members in our communities have access to safe water, clean air, and healthy land. On my farm, I raise livestock on pasture and on feedlots. Because these systems differ, they have to be treated differently—our state does that.

On pasture, manure is held in place on the land and the vegetative cover works as a filter that can actually improve water quality. In feedlots, the ground has no living cover, livestock herds are held more densely, and manure is prone to run off if not managed well. Because of this, feedlots are appropriately regulated by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) to protect our water quality.

I was involved when our state government created a definition for “pasture.” It was carefully crafted in a way that values our pastured livestock and our natural resources, keeping in sync with the science. As currently defined under Minnesota law, pasture is appropriately exempt from feedlot regulation by the MPCA.

But if a Big Ag-backed provision in the Senate’s proposed Agriculture Budget Bill and its proposed Agriculture Policy Bill goes through, certain feedlots will be able to qualify as pasture. Incredibly, this provision creates a new exemption for land without vegetation so that it can be considered "pasture." Pasture without plants growing on it? It simply doesn't make sense. This is especially problematic because the MPCA does not have regulatory authority over pastures, only feedlots. Land that is in essence a feedlot could be exempt from state laws that protect land, water, and rural communities.

Although Big Ag is selling it as simply “consolidation of existing statute,” new language is introduced throughout the provision. In fact, this language, according to Senate rules, is under the jurisdiction of the Environment and Natural Resources committees, not the Agriculture committees. (This Land Stewardship Project letter to legislative leaders has details on the language.)

Simply put, this is bad legislating and is just a way of writing special rules for special interests and not following the rules of our legislative process, which puts our rural communities at risk. Our Legislature must hold itself to a higher standard.

The definition of pasture must be protected—our farms, communities, land, water, and air are at risk. Farmers like myself who have incorporated pasture into our farming operations are raising livestock on a whole set of diverse principles that include rotational grazing and managed livestock density that protect the pasture’s plant systems. Some of us have special markets because certain consumers highly value livestock not raised in confinement. Pastures are not feedlots and allowing that game to be played for a few special interests is wrong. Keeping our current law in place is the right thing to do.

As the 2019 session of the state Legislature heads into its final days, Minnesotans need to speak up and tell their legislators to oppose this provision. You can take action here.

Land Stewardship Project organizer Paul Sobocinski raises livestock in southwestern Minnesota's Redwood County.