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R.D. Offutt scales back expansion plans in Minnesota

The mixed pine forests of central Minnesota are rapidly being replaced with agricultural fields to grow crops such as potato as PotlatchCorp is divesting its commercial forest lands.

Potato grower R.D. Offutt has agreed to scale back its expansion plans in Minnesota in a deal with regulators to protect sensitive groundwater and pine forests in central Minnesota.

The president and CEO of North Dakota-based R.D. Offutt Co., Keith McGovern, said his company will withdraw all but five of the irrigation permit applications it has pending with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The company once had 54 preliminary notifications and-or permit applications pending. The company already had bulldozed around 4,000 acres of previously forested land into irrigated cropland.

Under the deal announced last Thursday, the company will partner with the DNR to study related groundwater usage and deforestation in the Pineland Sands area of Becker, Cass, Hubbard and Wadena counties, the Star Tribune of Minneapolis reported ( ).

The region of permeable soil, lakes, rivers and woods sits over a large aquifer that's vulnerable to farm chemicals and depletion by irrigation. Researchers are studying how the forest-to-farmland transformation is affecting the area's watershed, which drains into the Upper Mississippi River and supplies drinking water for 1.7 million people in the Twin Cities.

"We remain concerned about the broader implications of land conversion and increased crop irrigation," DNR Assistant Commissioner Barb Naramore said. "These trends are not tied to a single company."

Offutt currently owns 13 undeveloped parcels in the area, each about 120 acres.

Naramore said the DNR and Offutt signed a memorandum of understanding after months of talks. The DNR under the deal dropped its pursuit of a time-consuming and expensive environmental review, which would have precluded Offutt from starting any projects that depend on groundwater well approvals.

The assistant commissioner said the DNR will review Offutt's five remaining permit applications. Approval is not assured, she said, and the agency will solicit local input before deciding. If all five permits are granted in full, Offutt would be authorized to dig new wells that would pump another 191 million gallons of water a year to irrigate potatoes and other crops.