Potato grower's purchase of forestland draws scrutiny

The sale of forestland to a big potato grower in northern Minnesota is drawing fire from some legislators.

Potlatch Corporation sold 1,500 acres in Cass County to Ronald Offutt, who harvested the trees and is converting the land to potato fields.

State Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, is concerned that runoff from the fields could pollute the Pinelands Sands aquifer.

"It's in excellent shape because it's been under forestland," Wagenius said of the aquifer. "So what we heard from the Pollution Control Agency is that there is phosphorus in the water but virtually no nitrogen."

Scientists at the state Department of Natural Resources, the Pollution Control Agency, and the Department of Health say the aquifer is vulnerable to nitrogen pollution from potato fields through the sandy soil.

Offutt farms plans to grow potatoes on a four-year rotation with other crops.

A spokesman for Offutt farms declined to comment. He told legislators today that his goal is to prevent transfer of nitrogen to the aquifer.

Wagenius said the change in land use contradicts the McDonald's corporation's environmental commitments.

"I think it is difficult if not impossible to protect groundwater, and of course when you cut down a forest you are losing that habitat," she said.