The next time you take the garbage out, give a thought to Dennis and Karen Barta. I visited the Bartas’ Renville County farm earlier this week to learn more about a government plan to make some of the best farmland in the world into a repository for garbage originating in Twin Cities area trash bins. The crisis the Bartas face says a lot about the state of our trash industry, the budget woes faced by county governments, the gaping loopholes in our eminent domain law, even our seemingly insatiable hunger for energy. During the next several weeks, I’m hoping to get the facts on all of these issues, and how they relate to the future of farms like the one owned by the Bartas. But I’ve already seen and learned enough to know this much is true: dumping garbage on prime food-growing land is a crime, and all of us can share in the guilt.
Dennis, 55, has been farming for over three decades. The farm he and Karen live on has been in the family since 1910. Today, they raise corn, soybeans and wheat on 500 acres of owned and rented land. One look at this rich, flat-lying soil and you can see why it is used to raise crops, and why Renville County is one the most productive farming regions in the nation. Now there’s a real possibility one corner of the Barta farm may begin sprouting garbage rather than food.
On Tuesday Dennis took me to an 80-acre section of his farm just a quarter-mile up the road from his house. That 80 acres grew a lot of corn in 2006. “I have a yield monitor on my combine and it showed I got 215 bushels to the acre on this last fall,” Dennis said as we drove by the field. “It lays so nice.”
Just across the fence line from those 80 acres is the Renville County landfill. Last summer, county officials notified the Bartas that they were going to need to buy that 80 acres in order to expand the landfill. But the Bartas don’t want to sell the land.
The county said the Bartas had no choice—they were forcing a sale through eminent domain. Dennis became suspicious: why so much land, and why was the county willing to use such extreme measures to procure it? Well, it turns out this tale is part of a wider story, one that extends all the way back to all those garbage alleys running through the back yards of Minneapolis-Saint Paul.
Renville County wants to expand its landfill so it can take ash from a waste-to-energy facility being proposed in neighboring Redwood County. A Canadian company called Home Farms Technologies wants to build Minnesota’s first commerical plant using gasification technology to convert solid waste into energy. Gasification, which is attracting a lot of attention these days, uses a high-temperature process to burn material and produce a synthetic gas.
The proposed Redwood County facility would use the synthetic gas to produce steam, which in turn would be used to power Central Bi-Products, a rendering facility in Redwood Falls that also produces biodiesel fuel. Central Bi-Products is owned by Farmers Union Marketing LLC. The gasification plant would require 600 to 650 tons of municipal garbage a day to meet the needs of Central Bi-Products, according to the Jan. 20 West Central Tribune. There is also a chance that extra energy produced by the plant could be used by the local grid. The company has agreements with independent garbage haulers in the Twin Cities metropolitan area to provide 500 to 550 tons of that waste daily via train, says the Tribune. The rest will come from rural counties in the area.
One of those counties, Renville, will also be getting something back from the plant: ash left over from the waste-burning process. And that’s where the Bartas’ 80 acres comes in. By taking the ash, Renville County can charge tipping fees for the gasified waste, allowing the county to generate enough money to keep their landfill going and to theoretically keep tipping fees down for garbage produced by local residents. Renville County will need a larger landfill for all that ash.
But there are a couple of problems with this plan, and these problems are why the Bartas are unwilling to sell at any price. First, concerns have been raised that the ash coming from such plants contain toxins such as dioxin. Dioxins can be particularly tricky once they get into the environment, since they have the ability to become part of the food chain. As farmers, that concerns the Bartas. Another giant fly in the ointment is that the expanded landfill land will be only a few hundred feet from where the east and west branches of Beaver Creek come together. The Minnesota River is less than 20 miles downstream.
The Bartas bought the 80 acres in question in the 1970s, at the same time the landfill was getting started. Dennis told me he’s never been crazy about having a landfill as a neighbor, let alone having it so close to a creek he and his family have enjoyed fishing in. But he’s become even more concerned about the landfill in recent years as more of the waste is made up of electronics, chemicals and who knows what. And now, there’s the ash.
“I’d have to be an idiot to sell it,” the softspoken farmer told me while sitting at his kitchen table. “It’d be different if they were going to build a park or something.” Even receiving top market price for that land wouldn’t be worth the risk of living near all that ash. He showed me photos taken a few weeks ago. They show strips of plastic blown from the landfill and clinging to trees growing on his land. “If they can’t control big chunks of plastic, how are they going to control that dust?” Dennis asks.
The Bartas are members of the Land Stewardship Project, and they’ve been contacting other groups active in the area. Clean Up the River Environment (CURE), another MEP member, recently met with Home Farms officials to express concerns about the taking of farmland to expand a landfill in a location that’s already bad news for local water quality. Patrick Moore, CURE’s executive director, is also concerned that burning waste will send a message that we don’t need to recycle garbage, or produce less in the first place—we can just keep consuming and let the Home Farms fires take care of what we don’t want anymore.
Dennis Barta is concerned about the big picture garbage issue as well. If it’s possible for his prime farmland to be taken, then what land is safe from the Junk Juggernaut?
“This is a bad precedent. Our own commissioners don’t see this farmland as a valuable resource,” he said. “How much garbage can the Metro produce? How long is our 80 acres going to last at that rate? They could bury us alive.”
As it stands, a lot of things are in limbo. Home Farms is waiting for the proper permits from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Dennis and Karen are collecting information on the hazards of incineration (of course, promoters of this technology prefer the term “gasification”) and preparing to fight for the future of their land as they wait for Renville County to schedule a condemnation hearing.
The Bartas are the kind of people who don’t go looking for a fight. This is the second time an environmental battle has been dropped on their doorstep. I first met Dennis a decade ago when a manure spill from a large-scale contract hog operation upstream killed over 690,000 fish on Beaver Creek. Dennis and his son Nathan discovered the kill while fishing one evening. That ecological disaster still stands as the largest manure-caused fish kill ever documented in the state’s history. After interviewing the Bartas and their neighbors about that fish kill, I swore to myself I would do my best to not support a food system that contributes to such environmental disasters. That’s why my family now buys our meat from independent farmers which use sustainable methods that benefit their communities and the land.
Late Tuesday as I drove back to the Twin Cities from Renville County and parked next to the overflowing garbage bin that sits behind my house, I realized that it’s time to stop being a party to yet another crime being committed on the land.