June 20, 2006

Pipeline troubles organic farmers

Gardens of Eagan owners Atina and Martin Diffley say that shifting a proposed pipeline would save their business, but some neighbors object, saying the organic farm shouldn't get special treatment.

Sarah Lemagie, Star Tribune

Atina and Martin Diffley have spent 30 years cultivating the produce -- and Twin Cities client base -- of Gardens of Eagan, their organic farm in Dakota County's Eureka Township. Now, they say, the farm is threatened by an oil pipeline slated to cut through the middle of their land.

Scheduled to be built next summer, the MinnCan pipeline will run from Clearwater, Minn., to the Flint Hills Resources Refinery in Rosemount. Its owner, Minnesota Pipe Line Co., said it's needed to bring more crude from Canada to the Twin Cities.

The pipeline has farmers along its entire 13-county path worried about safety issues, property values and minimizing the pipeline's effects on agriculture.

Eureka farmer Gary Smith is worried about the effect the pipeline -- which he said will cross his property -- could have on his ability to sell or develop his land.

"Corn and soybeans aren't going to be paying my taxes for too many more years," he said. "I'll be forced someday ... to seek alternatives."

Atina Diffley said her concerns are different.

"For us, compensation isn't even an issue. We want this land to be growing organic food in 200 years," she said.

Though it would directly affect only six of the farm's 100 acres, Diffley said the pipeline would hurt Gardens of Eagan far more than it would a conventional farm. A leak or contamination during construction would jeopardize the farm's organic certification, she said, and the pipeline's mere presence could drive away customers who buy the farm's sweet corn, kale and tomatoes at co-ops such as the Wedge.

Diffley said the overall effect of the pipeline on the farm's infrastructure and profit would make it "a hard, uphill battle" to stay in business.

Since Twin Cities co-ops posted an alert about the issue last month, she said, more than 1,500 people have written letters in support of the farm.

"I was surprised by how many of them said, 'I wouldn't buy produce from Gardens of Eagan if there were a pipeline on it.'"

The Diffleys' cause may have wide support among co-op shoppers, but some of their neighbors reject the idea that an organic farm should take priority over their own land.

Last month, the Diffleys asked the County Board to support her opposition to the pipeline's route. But when neighbor Darlyne Nordstrom's family found out about their request, they sent a letter to the board asking it not to support a route that would push the pipeline farther onto their property.

Rather than take sides, the board stated its support of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture's efforts to develop new regulations about dealing with organic farmland.

"I think Darlyne's letter opened the eyes of the County Board members to the point that it's nice to support one person's wants and needs, but when you do that, you create problems with another person's wants and needs," said Commissioner Joe Harris.

MinnCan project spokeswoman Patty Dunn said company representatives have met with the Diffleys' lawyer and come up with possible solutions to their concerns, including routing the pipeline through an existing right of way that cuts a corner of the family's property.

Atina Diffley said that would be a good compromise. Property owners also can ask to adjust the pipeline route at a series of public hearings starting in August.

The downside of requesting a change is that there's often no way to avoid suggesting the pipeline go on someone else's land.

"This is a very bad system because it pits neighbors against each other," she said.

Sarah Lemagie • 612-673-7557