State ag chief holds Q&A

January 31, 2010

It was a Q&A of sorts at the North Dakota State Fair Center as Agricultural Commissioner Doug Goehring took questions from a small group on Friday, the final day of the ag expo.

Topics ranged from the current habitat project of the Army Corps of Engineers on the Missouri River and state water monitoring programs, to the Emerald Ash Borer, the latest weed survey and the disconnect between those who grow food and the public that purchases it at their local grocery store.

Recently, the state ag department made a statement on one of the Corps projects, which is in the process of creating habitat for pallid sturgeon, an endangered fish, along the Missouri River.

"The digging is not the issue it is the dumping of half a billion of tons of soil into the river that is the matter of concern," Goehring said.

The high level of nutrients in the soil, particularly nitrogen and phosphorus, is carried to the Gulf of Mexico and results in the excess growth of plankton. The decomposition of the plankton consumes oxygen needed for other life-forms, creating a "dead zone."

"Private businesses, including farms and ranches, that dump soil or nutrient-laden material into the nation’s waterways face severe penalties. Yet the Corps of Engineers can dump a half billion tons of nutrient-rich soil into the river, and all the environmental regulators can say is that the Clean Water Act should not stop the Corp’s work," Goehring said.

Using statistics from a previous case, he said if the Corps was penalized according to the act, it would be required to pay $4.3 billion per year.

Concerning the state’s rivers and tributaries, Goehring said a new series of water monitoring programs will begin over the next year and will involve the Environmental Protection Agency, the state health department, local water and soil groups and others to identify pesticide and nutrient levels in the water.

From water, the discussion then moved to the Emerald Ash Borer, an exotic beetle whose larvae is capable of decimating trees and forests once infested.

In the spring of 2009, the beetle was discovered in a St. Paul, Minn., neighborhood and has spread to other parts of the town, causing panic for residents of North Dakota.

"We continue to monitor the situation with the city weed officials, state forest and parks and rec departments, and we continue to tell people not to bring firewood from Minnesota or South Dakota," he said.

Since it was discovered in Michigan in 2002, the beetle has destroyed tens of millions of trees in 13 states and it continues to make its way west.

The perceived disconnection between crop and livestock producers and the general public was also a topic of discussion Friday.

Throughout 2009, several federal and state food programs were introduced to encourage public and private institutions to purchase more locally grown food, and to educate the public about how food is produced and all of the processes it goes through before ending up on a grocer’s shelf.

"Producers get so frustrated. It gets personal and they get emotional about it they think that the public should understand but they don’t," he said. "Every generation is moving further and further away. My brothers have made comments in the last couple of years that I just shook my head. These guys grew up on a farm if its happening in my own family just think how its affecting those who are once, twice or three times removed from the situation."

Throughout all of the discussions on the issues, there was a similarity running through all of them.

"These issues won’t become personal until they become personal. It’s information overload. We get bombarded with information and people start tuning out they listen, but it doesn’t stick," he said. "How do you make something personal? How do you make it interesting? How do you talk about this so when you talk about food, fiber, feed and fuel?

"You make it personal and they start to get drawn in to that. It’s about reconnecting with the disconnected audience out there."