Staff with the Minnesota Department of Transportation took comments from a small group of state residents who attended the agency’s mowing and haying in the state right-of-way listening session on Nov. 9 in St. Cloud.
The meeting was one of several that MnDOT officials and staff are hosting to gather comments from the public about the state’s mowing and haying laws and permit process.
The process has been in the news since last December, when MnDOT announced new standards for mowing and haying in state rights-of-way, and a new permit. As reported by The Farmer Dec. 6, 2016, MnDot adopts new mowing, hay baling standard and permit, MnDOT issued specific rules. Those included high-visibility safety vests worn by equipment operators, all machinery fitted with amber rotating warning lights, and hay bale removal from ditches no later than five days after baling.
After learning about MnDOT’s requirements, Minnesota farm organizations, farmers and landowners voiced concerns to the policymakers. During the 2017 state legislative session, the Legislature imposed a moratorium on the permitting process and directed MnDOT to conduct public hearings and develop a legislative proposal regarding mowing and haying in state rights-of-way. MnDOT also created a stakeholder group to gather recommendations which are due to the department commissioner by Feb. 1. The commissioner then must report to the Legislature by March 1.
At the St. Cloud meeting, Nancy Daubenberger, MnDOT assistant commissioner, welcomed the group and gave an overview of the state’s ditch mowing and haying practices and regulations. One state statute passed in the mid-1980s restricts ditch mowing to the month of August. Limiting ditch mowing to that month helps protect nesting pheasants and other small wildlife. A second state law prohibits various activities such as plowing and mowing, except as permitted.
The number of ditch mowing and haying permits issued by MnDOT from July 1, 2016 to June 30, 2017, totaled 330, more than double the annual average over the last three fiscal years, she said.
“We had more last year, due to our messaging,” she added.
Only seven people signed up to speak at the St. Cloud meeting. MnDOT staff recorded comments and will compiled them all for the stakeholder group.
Some of the comments were:
• Relying on ditch grass as wildlife habitat is unsafe for motorists. “I like pheasants and I like bees, but I don’t like them in my grill,” a Todd County resident noted. “Having ditch hay for habitat is misleading. It’s better to plant corridors for pollinators.”
• A St. Cloud resident said he has seen illegal mowing take place, and he wondered who follows up on reports. One source told him it is the responsibility of the township. Another told him it was the police.
“We’ve got laws on the books, and no one is taking responsibility for following through on it,” he said.
MnDOT staff noted that the agency is not responsible for enforcement. Rather, it is the state patrol.
• A Belgrade resident has concerns with state and federal land planted in pollinator habitat, as those parcels become overrun with weeds. He also sees a double standard with ditch mowing, as businesses are mowing to the road and in ditches.
• A Kanabec County farmer who raises natural beef said he is concerned about the herbicides that MnDOT uses along ditches to kill weeds. He also doesn’t understand why he needs to get a permit to do something that benefits MnDOT.
“Mowing ditches is hard on our machinery. There is trash in the ditch,” he said. He added that the August mowing date needs to be changed.
• A Melrose farmer echoed concerns about damage to machinery, among other things.
“I’ve picked up and taken TVs, tires, all kinds of junk to the landfill, and I pay for that,” he said. “It’s a time-consuming job [to mow], and there is no feed value after Aug. 1 for the animals. Neighbors mow their lawns and ditches. MnDOT sprays for thistle from the road, applying it from the truck. How much of that chemical is hitting thistle?”
He also voiced concern about the requirement to wear reflective safety vests, and to install lights on all machinery used when mowing and haying in ditches.
Daubenberger said MnDOT would provide safety vests when asked, and that MnDOT staff members are discussing how to make flashing lights on machinery “more workable.”
• One of the stakeholders in attendance noted the small number of roadways impacted by MnDOT’s ditch mowing and baling standards.
“I see this as a solution looking for a problem,” he said. He added: “When you value insects and animals above humans, that’s wrong.”
• A Pheasants Forever member said the first down-cut is needed for safety. “That’s free food for farmers,” he added.
MnDOT has held listening sessions in Marshall, North Mankato, Morris and Shoreview, Minn., in addition to the meeting in St. Cloud.
Two sessions remain:
• Tonight, 6 to 8 p.m. MnDOT facility, East & West Lunchroom, 7694 Industrial Park Rd, Baxter
• Tuesday (Nov. 21), 6 to 8 p.m., at Dakota Lodge at Thompson Park Center, 1200 Stassen Lane, West St. Paul
If you are unable to attend a listening session, MnDOT encourages residents to send comments to dot.state.mn.us/mowing/comments or mail them to Minnesota Department of Transportation, Kevin Gutknecht MS-150, 395 John Ireland Blvd., St. Paul, MN 55155.
For more information, visit dot.state.mn.us/mowing.