MPR: Did you see that frozen french fries were going to be huge?So Offutt began buying land where he could grow potatoes for the french fry market. He targeted the so called sand lands of western Minnesota.
Offutt: Yes, we knew that, we knew that.
Offutt: Just the convenience factor and everything you read in that time frame and saw driving through the country was more McDonald's stores going up, Burger King was coming into the picture.
Offutt: What the sand lands of Minnesota allowed us to do was to produce the kind of potatoes that make the best french fries.At the time, most people thought the kind of dry, sandy land Offutt was buying wasn't worth much. It needed irrigation to produce a good crop. A lot of it was idled under government soil conservation programs. Offutt plowed it up and irrigated it. Soon, he was producing the exact kind of potatoes the french fry processors wanted. He expanded his operations dramatically.
Offutt: We went out the winter of '74 and almost tripled our operation.Offutt soon got so big he bought his own processing plant in Atlanta. A few years later, he built a bigger one in Minnesota, Lamb Weston RDO Frozen. The initials RDO stand for Ron D. Offutt. He owns half the plant. It uses one billion pounds of potatoes a year. Offutt grows almost all of them.
Holzer: Fifteen years ago when I built my home there, you could sink a sand point down.Potatoes for the french fry market require big doses of nitrogen fertilizer , so they can grow supersized, the way french-fry processors like them
MPR: A sand point well?
Holzer: Yes, and drink the water. Today, you couldn't drink it, the nitrates are so high. And that's all happened since they started irrigating. That's my biggest concern.
Altstadt: That brown one is over 10. This one here is the one that had 79 parts. They put in another new well and now that one is reading 49 parts per million.Christy Staber, her husband and their 16-month-old son Harley moved into the subdivision this summer. Their well is the one reading 49 parts per million - nearly five times the safe-drinking standard. When they bought the house, they didn't know there was anything wrong. By the time they found out their drinking water was unsafe, their infant son had been drinking it for nearly a month.
Staber: It makes me sick, I think about it all the time. It bothers me at night, it bothers me all the time. I don't know what we're going to do about it.Last year, R.D. Offutt and other smaller potato farmers applied well over 100,000 pounds of nitrogen to the land that overlies Perham's wells - 60 percent of all the fertilizer used on that land.
Pankonin: There's just a lot of speculation about why the wells are contaminated. So I can't say this company or this farmer did this and that, but it's like keep testing but what's the answer?Ron Offutt concedes there are environmental risks to growing irrigated potatoes for the french fry market. He says his company is doing all it can to reduce the risks.
Offutt: Any type of agriculture production, not unique to potatoes, has environmental issues. I think they are minimized best-practice methods. Only putting on enough fertilizer and pesticide to handle the crop, and we monitor it very closely.In recent years, regulators in Minnesota have started to take a harder look at the practice of growing irrigated potatoes on sandy soil over shallow aquifers. But studies to determine whether the practice is contaminating groundwater are expensive and time consuming.