In the Spotlight

News & Features
What Price Success?
By Mary Losure
September 28, 1999
Second of two parts.
Click for audio RealAudio 3.0

Ron D. Offutt is the biggest potato grower in the world. His privately owned company raises 1.8 billion pounds of potatoes a year, many of them in Minnesota. They go to make french fries for fast food chains like McDonald's. Offutt is also the top supplier to frozen french-fry processors like JR Simplot and Ore Ida. But his success has a downside.

Many people who live near Offutt's potato farms worry about the pesticides sprayed on his fields, but they soon find they're up against a system much bigger than they are.

AMERICANS LOVE FRENCH FRIES, but growing the potatoes that make them has an environmental price. Potatoes for the french fry market must be supersized and flawless. They need large doses of many different kinds of pesticides, all summer long.

Most people never see the planes and helicopters that spray those chemicals, but they've become a part of everyday life for people who live near Ron Offutt's potato fields. Red Otterman is a retiree who lives in Ottertail County in western Minnesota.
"We're taking a beating up here for being experimental guinea pigs is what's happening, just so someone can raise potatoes from the state of Washington to the state of Texas."

- Terry Colton
Resort owner
Otterman: Helicopters and airplanes are flying over here every day. It sounds like we're being strafed a lot of times. now I know they're doing something good for the potato farmer, but I'm not a potato farmer. I'm an ex-mechanic. And right now I'm concerned about the health of myself and my family and the people around us.
Brust: It scares the tar out of me.
Charlie Brust lives on Clitherol Lake in Ottertail County. The R.D. Offutt Company began growing potatoes near his home a few years ago.
Brust: You can be out here walking on the road and all of a sudden here comes a plane. Boom. What are you going to do?
When spray planes began flying near their homes, people who lived along the lake shore, took videos like this one, and began organizing. So the company switched from planes to helicopters in some places. Helicopters are quieter than planes, but the spraying continued, and people soon found out there wasn't much they could do about it.

The law did not protect them. The federal and state laws that govern pesticides for agriculture do not prevent aerial spraying near homes, lake shores or towns. Pesticide applicators are required to follow the directions on the label, but the labels didn't prevent the aerial spraying either.

Terry Colton owns a resort on Clitherol Lake. He says people often don't know what's being sprayed. He's especially worried about an insecticide called Monitor-4.
Colton: During public hearings, Offutt representatives stated that after spraying Monitor-4 in the fields, they wouldn't walk through the fields for three days, because it comes in contact with your skin and is bled into your body through the skin. That's how devastating that chemical can be.
People in Ottertail County can't pass local ordinances to stop the spraying. People in nearby Hubbard County tried that in 1992. That year, a young couple came to the Mantrap Township Board for help. The couple lived between two of Offutt's potato fields. They were worried about the spray drifting into their yard. Judy Olson was chair of the township board.
Olson: The children's toys that were outside would be covered with this substance, their windows would be covered, any clothing on the lines, anything outside would get this sticky substance on it, and she was fearful for the children because they were quite small at the time.
So the board passed a local ordinance to restrict the aerial spraying of pesticides. Offutt and the state's licensed commercial pesticide applicators sued the township. The township lost. They appealed, and lost again. Judy Olson of the township board says people finally gave up.
Olson: People just basically backed off because they knew they didn't have the money that the farms did, and that they wouldn't have a chance anyway.
The Minnesota Department of Agriculture is the state agency charged with regulating pesticides. When Offutt sued the township, The agriculture department joined in - on the side of Offutt and the commercial-pesticide applicators.

Offutt opponents in other states say they've seen the same kind of obstacles. People near the small town of Durand, Wisconsin, took videos like this one when the R.D. Offutt Company moved into their neighborhood in the early 1990s. Helen Kees was one of the leaders of the opposition. She says in the beginning, hundreds of people turned out. Now she's about the only one who hasn't given up.
Kees: The movement basically died because there was nothing we could do legally (or) politically to stop the aerial spraying.
Ottertail County resort owner Terry Colton says another obstacle for Offutt's opponents is that he has the support of many local government officials who represent farm interests. Offutt pays high prices for the land he buys and rents from local farmers.

He's also demonstrated his influence at the state level. He went directly to then-governor Arne Carlson for approval of a controversial expansion of a french fry plant in Park Rapids, Lamb Weston RDO Frozen. RDO stands for Ron D. Offutt. He owns half the plant. Carlson announced the expansion before it had received the environmental permits it needed.

Resort owner Colton say's he's almost given up trying to stop the aerial spraying, but it still makes him angry.
Colton: I'd like to know what effect you think it would have on you, if they sprayed your city parks? If they came to Bloomington with this plane in the morning, and sprayed from five o'clock until 10, with a chemical unknown to you, how long do you think that would last? We're taking a beating up here for being experimental guinea pigs is what's happening, just so someone can raise potatoes from the state of Washington to the state of Texas.
Ron Offutt does raise potatoes from the state of Washington to the state of Texas. He farms more than 100,000 acres in 11 states. He calls the pesticide spraying "unpleasant" and an "inconvenience" for the public. But he says environmental hazards are part of any farming operation, and the industry's track record is getting better. His company has been a leader in reducing the amount of fertilizer and pesticides used on potatoes for the french fry market.
Offutt: Yes there's always a hazard, there's always issues, but today's agriculture is sensitized environmentally to the point that we're doing a better job in that area than we did 10, 15, 20 years ago.
Offutt says he grows the kind of potatoes the market demands. If he used fewer chemicals, his potatoes wouldn't make the perfect french fries Americans like. He says he may be able to reduce the amount of pesticide he uses in the future. Soon, he hopes to grow genetically engineered potatoes that won't need so much spray.
Offutt: It would be my guess that in a half a dozen years or so, genetics will allow us not to have to spray and put on the pesticides that we are, if genetically altered food becomes and stays acceptable to the American people.
If the American public does want genetically engineered potatoes, Ron D. Offutt will grow them. The market, not the people who live near his potato fields, will decide.