When a ditch is more than a ditch

IMAGE: TopoMaps
Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

One-hundred and four years ago, the iron mines around North Hibbing ran hot with thawing hematite while the early June weather proved every bit as unpredictable as today’s. The gates to the city seasonal parks swung open in torrential rain, but people still walked through them to sit on the benches. Because, after a long winter and dismal spring, they finally could.

Editor Claude Atkinson of the Mesaba Ore, one of the three Hibbing papers that would later merge to become our Hibbing Daily Tribune, spoke of these matters in several 1915 editorials. But he refused to limit the conversation to mining and the weather.

Atkinson believed that for the Mesabi Range to become truly self-sufficient it’d need to feed itself — specifically through agriculture. In a reading of several months of Atkinson’s spring 1915 newspapers he constantly shoe-horned the availability of land and the potential of cultivating it into his weekly editions.

He wasn’t the only one talking about this at the time. Throughout the 1910s, city and county boosters across St. Louis County saw the need for local grains, produce and livestock. Land near the iron formation was controlled by the mining companies, but vast tracts of available, rich (but soggy) land stood to the north and south.

So the county enticed farmers — mostly immigrants — to locate in places like Meadowlands, Toivola, and Zim to farm for hay, crops and livestock needed by the growing populations of Range towns. This coincided with the blacklisting of many Finnish workers at area mines, so the policy was seen as mutually beneficial.

The region is part of what is known as the Sax-Zim bog — and bog means what you think. It’s a swamp. I grew up in Zim and most of my childhood memories involve being wet and/or covered with insects.

The way the deal worked, the county dug a network of ditches — some along roads, but others along 40-acre plots being snapped up by farmers. The ditches would allow adequate drainage into the St. Louis River to allow farming. The county dug the ditches and assessed the new farmers a tax to pay for them.

So, the land there might not be perfect, but it grew highly useful to society and liberating for people unable or unwilling to subject themselves to the steel syndicate that controlled Range towns.

Today, descendants of some of the same immigrant farmers still work the land of places like Toivola, Meadowlands and Zim. But farmers now tell me that conditions in the fields are becoming untenable. These places may soon become unsuitable for farming if St. Louis County fails to act.

For decades, the county maintained the ditches the some way they did roads and bridges. But by the late 1980s, they had stopped removing blockages. At first farmers were still able to work, but wetter springs have now made farming and grazing difficult, if not impossible.

“Farmers say it’s affecting all of them now,” said Ed Nelson, secretary of the Arrowhead Regional Farm Bureau. “The ditches used to drain land in two days. Now the water stays in the field.”

Even growing hay has become problematic. Nelson said some longtime farmers are barely able to grow enough to feed their own horses and livestock, much less sell hay to others who need more.

Just as frustrating, Nelson said the county’s response has been mostly to ignore the pleas for action from farmers.

It’s possible that there is some good reason why the county has not maintained the ditches. Nelson said one county official told him “it’s illegal” to fix the ditches, though did not explain why. Wetlands management is a complex process, with significant ecological impact. However, this does not excuse the lack of answers for landowners trying to subsist on what was once advertised as farm acreage.

And if the county truly plans to abandon the ditches and let the farmland return to muck, they owe an explanation to farmers.

Doing so might prove a poor choice in the long run. A September 2018 study commissioned by the Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation showed that the Taconite Tax Relief Area was capable of fully meeting local demand for agricultural goods. For perspective, the United States is only 83 percent capable of meeting local demands.

“Climate change shows that we’re having heavier rainfall, more rain, and the ditches are having a difficult time holding it,” said Nelson. “What is our plan for the future here? If other places lose water, farmland will be very important. Meadowlands and Cook are the best farmlands in Northern Minnesota.”

Nelson said one contractor estimated the cost of fixing the ditches to be only a few thousand dollars. Farmers offered to pay for it themselves, but Nelson said the county declined. I called the St. Louis County Public Works department this week, but did not receive a call back.

A community meeting will be held at 6 p.m. at the Elmer Community Center on Tuesday, June 11 to discuss the situation with the drainage ditches. St. Louis County officials have agreed to meet with farmers and other affected citizens there to answer questions and gather input.

One hopes answers are forthcoming. To some, these might just be ditches in the swamp. But for others they are vital keys to livelihood. And in coming years they could become local lifelines to a sustainable food supply in Northern Minnesota.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, June 9, 2019 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


  1. Leah Rogne says

    It seems odd that the county water resources board (or whatever it’s called in this state) hasn’t been regularly maintaining the drains. In North Dakota where I own farmland, we pay taxes every year for the drains that serve our land. They are periodically dredged to remove silt and drift dirt, weeds, and other obstructions. The costs are then spread over the farmers served by the drain. Why isn’t this happening in St. Louis County? I get that we need to be concerned about wetlands, but land that has been farmland for more than a century is in a different category than new land taken out of wetlands.

  2. deborah dely says

    I have lived on the Iron Range all my life. In the country and in towns. Biggest issue is the wetlands have made useless what once was useful. Land cleared and drained to farm and live because the population was growing. Now it all big business. Rich from NY and east coast come in and create land back to swamps before even allowing people to have a say. Ditches plugged to stop drainage and make farming land useless. Brush grows in and ducks come. Big deal. wildlife can not even live out in the woods anymore. Culvers have been raised to hold water in ditches. Mosquitoes are more rather than fewer. Which they have created health problems with bugs and decay. If a section of land is ditched the ends go nowhere. Stopping the waterflow to the rivers and streams. When water levels go up 4 feet you have a problem. Not only for the fields, septic systems but the roads in the areas as well. Then the county refuses to put more gravel on the roads and when the frost comes we have problems. Graders come and put ridges in the roads so water can’t drain off the roads. Shoulders are higher than the roads ways. Culvers being raised causes them to heave in the winter. Such foolishness. We had a good thing going for the people and the government comes in and screws that up. Who profits??? The big businesses. Creating jobs. Many older people worked hard to have the ditches put in in the first place only to have them destroyed. Basements also collapse under the pressure outside and home are condemned. How is this good for the people. Esp when illegals are coming in and will need land eventually around america. This is happening all over. MN and the bog is just one place. Look at Aitkin County and others as well. We are the great lakes river run off.

  3. deborah dely says

    I am glad you are talking about this because it needs to be fixed. It is doing more harm than good. Wildlife is being forced closer to towns and dry lands. To many rules and laws to live with. The entire county , state, government needs to fix this and not at the expense of the taxpayers again. I pushed for brushing, cutting dead trees, ditching, beaver dams causing problems, right a way cutting of trees. cleaning streams and ditches so water can flow. Why are we going backwards on all these things people have worked so hard to do? Most of government lives in the cities and have only concrete lives. How many actually have shot a gun, gone hunting, fishing, camping camping and walked in the woods or worked on a farm?

  4. Gray Camp says

    Reading between the lines – So the county stopped paying attention to maintenance on these ditches and some of the land that was previously not wetland is now wetland, so now the county can’t “legally” do anything about these ditches because they would be harming wetlands, and no one did a wetland survey between the enactment of the clean water act and now to prove that this land wasn’t previously not wetland?

    Much of the range region is in the same boat. If we are having to interpret the clean water act the same as this, much of the region’s chances for economic development and diversification are doomed.

  5. The Red River Valley isn’t self sustainable in steel production either. Neither is self sustainable in fruit or some vegetable production. So what’s the point?

    Our climate is much colder than areas to the west of us. Our growing season is weeks shorter than Grand Forks, just as far north. Without intensive cultivation and greenhouses to get things started most food crops won’t grow here.

    That leaves hay and cattle, which is most of our agricultural production.

    Thanks to environmentalists and our government wetlands are now our most valuable land and dare not be touched. This even applies to historic farmland that now holds water. Around Aitkin farmers are selling land that is dammed off to recreate wetlands for trade with areas that are prosperous and need room to expand.

    Ever see a wetland survey? Even tire ruts that hold a little water and a couple cattails are counted.

  6. Maybe Sisu go Mekong? Ease tension. More relaxing. Little Mekong Night Market: July 6 & 7 Saint Paul.

  7. Elanne Palcich says

    The mining companies are continually destroying wetlands. To keep the balance they need credits in wetland replacement or restoration. Abandoning the ditches is an easy way to qualify for wetland restoration. However, the quality of the wetlands being destroyed by mining may be greater than the quality of the wetlands being restored–so more land must be restored to compensate.
    The bottom line is that we are losing the natural ecosystem qualities of our area on a very large scale, due to logging, mining, and development.
    Wetlands and forests help preserve the water quality and resources of our area. They are also carbon sinks in time of climate change. Wetlands may also sequester mercury.
    It makes sense to me to retain some of the agricultural land in northeast Minnesota by maintaining the ditches. However, when large industry controls the government, decisions aren’t made according to what makes the most sense–or for that matter, on the values of high quality wetland and water resources.

    • Gray Camp says

      Elanne – are you saying these farmers are being financially compensated by the mines and loggers for allowing their farmland to be turned to wetlands against their will? As far as I know, nobody is getting credit for these lands being returned to wetlands.

      I don’t agree at all with how the judicial branch of our government has chosen to interpret the Clean Water Act. “B” talked about tire ruts and cattails being wetlands. It seems like it is even worse than that with any plot of land that doesn’t drain well and doesn’t see much sun is a wetland, regardless if there is the presence of an actual body of water. If you look at a map, 95% of the land between Mora and Hudson Bay would be a wetland by this definition. I don’t see that there is a whole lot of harm in developing a small part of this land for the benefit of the people who live on this land and the benefit of mankind.

  8. Paul Ojanen says

    It has little to do with the Clean Water Act or the Minnesota Wetland Conservation Act. Even with the drainage, the land was barely farmable. It also had consequences to water quality. As far as cost, the hassle of constantly sending in trappers. Wildlife services and others to clear blockages…mostly beaver dams, is not that simple. Public works is trying to maintain roads and bridges, not maintain at best marginal hay production in wet meadows. It wasn’t just drainage, it was also periodic climate episodes such as drought in the 1930’s.

    • Gray Camp says

      Aaron’s article says a county official said it was illegal for them to maintain the ditches. This seems to contradict your argument.

      Did anyone go to the community meeting? I didn’t see anything in the newspaper about it.

      • I see what Paul is saying and I have heard what the farmers have said. What I think is the biggest problem is that a handful of county officials — elected or otherwise — don’t have the stones to tell the farmers that this decision was made and is final. I also think they don’t want to deal with lawsuits from landowners who had usable land that isn’t usable anymore. This should have been handled head-on. Further, I have a lot of questions about the private land-management company that bought up the land along the ditches. Why are they able to profit from selling wetland credits and not the county itself? That’s not snark, but a real question.

        • Randy C. Bunney says

          I believe the answer, Aaron, is that the county is a probable deficit spender when it comes to wetland credits, The county has to deal with road maintenance and new construction that may degrade or destroys wetlands.

  9. So, we are trying to support the local farmers, but a small article about a soap seller in today’s Hibbing paper talks about when the Farmer’s Market is but fails to say where, like we’re supposed to somehow lnow.

  10. Gray Camp says

    Ditches like these are found in the dedicated farm countes of southwestern Minnesota, and are often maintained by the county. Aaron and Paul are likely right in that SLC just decided to stop maintaining SLC ditches and didn’t have the decency to tell anyone. I’d like to know about this land management company also.

    It feels to an extent that the Clean Water Act and Mn Wetland Conservation Act are being interpreted in ways that prevent economic development from occurring in our region – like we are being penalized because our predecessors didn’t do enough to clear cut everything and tile, ditch, and pave the heck out of things to eliminate wetlands like they did throughout most of the rest of the state.

    In the end, I guess these farmers can be farming as long as they can and then sell wetland credits for the land and let it go back to bog, never to make any money off this land again?

  11. Randy C. Bunney says

    Maintaining public ditches costs money. The fact that St Louis County has apparently stopped clearing drainage ditches shouldn’t come as a surprise in these economic times. However, my limited understanding of MN drainage law is that landowners own the ditch structure, the ditch banks and ditch bed. Subsequently, maintenance and improvements of public ditches are the landowners’ financial responsibility, an obligation met through tax assessments. Whereas counties are the drainage authority that establish and construct public ditches in Minnesota. In addition, the waters that the ditches transport belong to the public (Minnesota Statutes Chapter 103E.005 and DNR public waters regulations.) Such public waters serve a “beneficial purpose,” including conservation, that the county must consider.

    The problem of trying to farm Northern Minnesota wetlands goes back to the homestead days during the late 19th and early 20th century when land promoters sold the notion of seemingly limitless good fortune awaiting settlers who take up farming if one were only to drain the land. Subsequent land speculation ran prices up, ditches largely failed due to the flat terrain and many-would-be farmers abandoned homesteads after harvesting the timber. In short, drainage ditches were a boondoggle. It’s reported that direct line can be drawn between the scallywags selling bog for farmland to the present situation of St Louis County being stuck with some 900,000 acres of tax forfeit land.

    Then along comes the recent land swap of Minnesota School Trust and County tax forfeited land for consolidate Potlatch forested land financed by a Baltimore-based company EIP and facilitated by the Conservation Fund. EIP is selling wetland credits for the 36 square miles of Sax-Zim Bog it is restoring to offset wetlands others have damaged or destroyed elsewhere. The bog restoration includes filling 70 ditches to “restore the natural hydrology of the site, improving both habitat values and water quality.”

    All of this is beyond complicated. Certainly, no farmers will ever achieve such grand deals on their own. Meanwhile, farmers are left with their own ditches that have become plugged due to lack of maintenance. The predictable results: periodic flooded farmland.

    The problem of trying to farm this swamp has never gone away since the boondoggle of failed attempts to drain wetlands for farming between 1915 and 1930 when people stricken with ditch fever bought into the illusion, “You know what? Bogs are a great place to farm.”

    They are not. Never will be. We need to admit that and look for other approaches to flooded croplands than ditching. Approaches that don’t include farming bogs. Perhaps the hard solution is resettling farmers elsewhere. Or maybe there are less drastic remedies that spring from modern twists on old ideas, the so-called soil banks and shelter belts of the Dust Bowl era, when the government paid farmers to take land out of production and to plant trees. Whatever the solution, we need new ways of thinking about an old problem.

    The Potlatch land swap is an example of such thinking that has shown us collaborative ways to involve the private sector and local government to the benefit of all. We need to open the floodgates to such approaches. It seems then within reason that we can solve this more than century long problem. But the stakeholders are not just the farmers and the county. Minnesota drainage laws are clear. The public has a beneficial interest in the public waters transported in public ditches that by law the county must consider in any ditch work. For instance, bogs as natural resources provide measurable economic benefits, such as recharging ground water, holding storm runoff, filtering water, storing carbon and providing wildlife and plant habitat.

    We need a modern breed of land speculators who, like the Potlatch dealmakers, envision solutions that benefit all players, including the public.

  12. Randy Bunney says

    County Ditch 4 now has its own website including this History: https://county-ditch-4-slcgis.hub.arcgis.com/pages/history

    County Abandons Dtich 4 Section. Still on the Hook For Repairs

    The county notes in the ditch’s “History” that “a significant portion of CD4 has gone tax forfeit over the past century. Those tax forfeited lands received no benefit from CD4 but did impose potential maintenance and repair liability for the entire system.” On August 2, 2022, the St. Louis County “Drainage Authority approved abandonment of 34.7 miles of ditch meeting the abandonment criteria, leaving 31.2 miles of ditch in CD4,” according to the history webpage noted above.

    Meanwhile, Minnesota drainage law requires that “viewers” have to determine who benefits from a public drainage ditch, in both new ditches and repair of existing canals such as Ditch 4. The Ditch 4 viewing process is complete. Viewers determined the county substantially benefits from Ditch 4 because of the waterway’s beneficial impact upon existing roads. Subsequently, viewers determined the county, as St. Louis County Road Authority, receives the most benefit from the ditch. Therefore the county is estimated to be on the hook for Ditch 4 repairs to the tune of $150,000 to $500,000. That is if a repair is ordered by the drainage authority.

    Finally, the county reports on its website above that an “informal landowner meeting has been scheduled for January 11, 2023. A public hearing addressing the redetermined benefits and landowner challenges will take place in February 2023.”

    NOTE: I fess up. I am an outsider from Fort Ripley. Yet I am fascinated by the history of the Meadowlands area. My focus the last three years has been researching local ditch roads, peat-soil farming and the Duluth & Iron Range Railroad’s colonization of Elmer, Meadowlands and Kelsey. But one topic has proven elusive: the D&IR’s demonstration farm at Meadowlands in the early decades of the 20th century.

    Please contact me if you are familiar with the demonstration farm or can direct me to a research source. Local references available upon request. randybunney@gmail.com

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