Farmers roughly 45 miles northwest of Duluth are engaging with St. Louis County officials Tuesday for the second time in recent weeks to discuss how to deal with rising water tables which farmers say are preventing them from planting and getting hay, grain and other crop yields.

“I’m starting to lose my land,” Tom Horvath, of Meadowlands, said. “The water table has come up significantly and we’re starting to have wetter years.”

The meeting, at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Elmer Town Hall, will bring together county officials, engineers and farmers in an effort to work toward a solution. At the center of the issue is a system of judicial ditches carved into the landscape more than a century ago.

“We’re losing land and people are really troubled by it,” Commissioner Mike Jugovich said. “I don’t blame them a bit.”

A ditch filled with water and weeds is seen in front of an entire field Tom Horvath was unable to plant due to over saturation. Water has nowhere to go when the ditches aren't cleaned out. Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com
A ditch filled with water and weeds is seen in front of an entire field Tom Horvath was unable to plant due to over saturation. Water has nowhere to go when the ditches aren't cleaned out. Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com

Judicial ditches are apart from roadside ditches and cut across the interior of farmland, generally on the backside of a 40-acre plot.

A farming advocacy group, Arrowhead Regional Farm Bureau, has been behind a push to resolve the issue which has crept up on farmers who are settled in an area described to the News Tribune as 15 sections of land, 640 acres each, outside the Sax-Zim Bog.

Ed Nelson, secretary of the local Farm Bureau, said the ditches were abandoned by the county in the 1990s and have silted in with trees, brush and grass. The ditches are capturing water and no longer effectively draining the land into the nearby St. Louis River.

“I buy my hay from a farmer down there,” Nelson, of Hibbing, said, “and it’s getting harder and harder for him to make good hay.”

Nelson explained the judicial ditches were installed as early as 1910 as a way to attract immigrant farmers to the area. Iron Range columnist Aaron Brown addressed the issue on his website Minnesota Brown on Sunday, framing it as critical to sustainable food supply in Northern Minnesota.

Straight rows of crops are interrupted by over-saturated soil and planted around the soggy ground on Tom Horvath's land in Meadowlands. Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com
Straight rows of crops are interrupted by over-saturated soil and planted around the soggy ground on Tom Horvath's land in Meadowlands. Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com

Horvath owns 500 acres off of County Highway 5. Half of his acreage is tillable farmland. Water that used to drain within two days of heavy rainfall is now standing on his fields, he said. So far, he’s planted only 40 acres of oats.

“I’m not trying to stir up a firefight,” he said, “but I’m at my wits' end.”

Horvath recalled the county maintaining the ditches on the family property in the 1970s, '80s and '90s with drag-line excavators and bulldozers.

“I remember in 1994 they came and cleared one of the main ditches and that was the last time,” he said. “It’s getting so overgrown, there are trees that can be logged already.”

Horvath said farmers haven’t cleared the ditches on their own because of legal complexities involved with who owns the ditches and wanting to avoid fines.

A contingent of farmers appealed to the county board during the public comment period at a regular board meeting May 28 in Floodwood.

Tom Horvath's 94-year-old mother Pat Horvath waters her raspberry plants in Meadowlands Monday. At least five generations have been raised on the farm. Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com
Tom Horvath's 94-year-old mother Pat Horvath waters her raspberry plants in Meadowlands Monday. At least five generations have been raised on the farm. Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com

Public works director Jim Foldesi said in a statement that the county’s position for Tuesday’s meeting is to continue to hear out farmers and "gather information." The county is not yet ready to offer solutions and appears loathe to entertain what it considers conspiracy theories floating around alleging the county stopped ditch-clearing in order to create wetlands.

“We are on a productive path as long as we focus on the specific issue that landowners are having and work to develop solutions,” Foldesi said in a statement.

It’s not understood why the ditch-clearing practice stopped. Jugovich, the 7th District commissioner representing the area in question, said he didn’t want to speculate on decisions made by past county boards.

“There’s no place for that water to go,” Jugovich said. “I’d like to see us come up with something.”