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On the Wild Rice, a Plea for a Culture

Burr Oak - ND Culture along the Wild Rice River
On the Wild Rice, a Plea for a Culture
by: Chuck Haga, Grand Forks Herald

Farmers must deal with uncertainty all the time; the weather, the markets, the decisions of a host of local, state and federal policymakers and bureaucrats.

But as they sat and talked near the great old burr oak that presides over Trana Rogne’s farmstead east of Kindred, three farming neighbors agreed that Fargo’s diversion plan leaves them mired in uncertainty.

“We’re in limbo,” Jerome Nipstad said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen. Do I have any interest in planting trees in a certain spot? Do I build dikes around my fuel tanks? That’s expensive. Do I spend that money now and in 10 years it’s gone?

“Our cemetery, where my father and grandparents are buried, will be flooded. That’s the North Pleasant Cemetery, at the former site of the Hickson Lutheran Church. What to do about that?

“I don’t think there’s anything we do that’s not affected by this uncertainty,” he said.

Nipstad was born on a farm by the Wild Rice River about three miles from the Rogne place. Leslie Rogne, Trana’s father, was his 4·H
leader. Nipstad’s wife, Sandy, grew up in nearby Kindred.

He started farming in 1967. “I farmed with my dad until he died, and then I took over,” he said. Now his son, Scott, 41, farms with him. They raise wheat, soybeans and sugar beets on about 4,500 acres.

Todd Toppen, 52, lives a mile east of Rogne on the Wild Rice River on a farm his parents bought in the mid-1950s after leaving a place the family had homesteaded a few miles to the west.

Toppen and his wife, LeAnn 51 have raised three children on the farm, and all have a stake in what happens as the region deals with too much water; they are all in the way. Daughter Erin, 27, is married to a farmer by Kindred and teaches music in a West Fargo elementary school. Daughter Leslie, 25, works in flood-prone Fargo. Son Kyle, 20, a sophomore at UND, hopes to take over the farm someday.

These neighbors and others in southern Cass County and Richland County organized last year to challenge the diversion plan they saw coming out of Fargo, arguing that planning should have included more people from a broader area. They objected that promoters didn’t include loss of agricultural production in projected impacts, and they said the cost of relocations and acquisitions was underestimated.

Beyond economics, they faulted the plan for not recognizing the social and cultural impact of turning a broad area south and west of Fargo into a holding pond.

“Fargo feels they’re in control and they can do as they please,” Nipstad said. “They want future growth to the south. We feel they could dike up more green space and remove houses along the river in Fargo, just like Grand Forks did.”

Rogne said that Fargo should use the floodplain just to the city’s south for water storage at times of flooding, “instead of draining it to build houses.” Instead, he said,”they’re moving the flood onto their neighbors. In the spring, they’ll hold the floodwaters south of Fargo and pond the water on all these farms: 54,000 acres flooded. And flooding from the Sheyenne would meet up with it.”

Toppen said, “It’s a basinwide problem that deserves a basinwide solution.”

Leah Rogne, Trana’s sister, also has jumped into the fight. A professor of sociology at Minnesota State University, Mankato, she filed a detailed statement of opposition to the diversion plan with the Corps of Engineers in June.

The area that is to become a holding area for floodwaters  “is a rural area that, after decades of declining social and economic infrastructure in other parts of rural America, has established a level of social and economic health, viability and equilibrium,” she wrote.

“The removal of  ‘hundreds of thousands’ of residents and the relocation of farm operations threatens the health of all these communities …. No project as radical as this one should move forward without community studies that assess the impact of the proposed changes.”

In a flier prepared by a group called the MnDak Upstream Coalition, people opposed to the diversion project as designed conceded that “there is no silver bullet” for dealing with the very real threat to Fargo·Moorhead. “All valley residents need to cooperate in basinwide planning for reasonable solutions at a reasonable cost,” it states, with “alternatives that don’t require one area to be destroyed in order to benefit another.”

Trana Rogne is a member of the coalition. Kyle Toppen works on the group’s Web page.

Rogne left the area in 1966 for college in Califorma. He raIsed his family there, but in 2000 he and his wife, Gail, returned to the home

“Mom and Daddy needed someone to take care of them,” he said. “And it’s a nice place, a familiar place to come back to.” He rents out the farmland 160 acres, to neighbors who raise beans and wheat. The spacious house he shares with his mother Katherine, 97, is surrounded by a small forest of hackberry, ash and oak, lorded over by the magnificent burr oak his father planted in 1930.

Rogne’s grandfather, Peter, a Norwegian immigrant, homesteaded the land in the 1880s. Nipstad said he’s planning to retire in a few years. He has a dike around his farmstead now, which has held out the flooding Wild Rice River every year, but the diversion may force an exit before he’s ready.

“They say they will relocate you,” he said. “But where?” Toppen said he waited 25 or 30 years for other farmers to retire so he could obtain the land he farms. He could protect his farmstead with dikes, but he doesn’t want to have to haul equipment for miles to get at new land. “It’s awfully nice to farm around where you live” he said. ”And when you’re talking about flooding six miles to the north and eight miles to the east there’s not a lot of high spots.”

The MnDak Upstream Coalition was formed in April and by summer had up to 200 members meeting monthly. A steering committee met weekly. Other groups organized among homeowners in Oxbow, Hickson and other small towns south of Fargo.

This project was planned by people who benefit from this plan,” Trana Rogne said. “They didn’t ask us about it. They only told us about it when they told us we would be flooded out.”

The plan was designed by the FM Metro Study Group, which included representatives from the city of Fargo and Cass County.

“We’ve asked if we could start a new study group, to have everybody at the table,” Rogne said in August, but they hadn’t heard a response.

“If we’re going to take their water, we need to have some say,” he said. “As it is, Richland County is to be a holding pond for Fargo, and we don’t think that’s fair.”

Toppen said Fargo was wrong to continue developing into the floodplain, including building the new Davies High School there. “None of us have ever done anything that stupid,” he said.

“Fargo knew they were putting Davies High in a low spot,” Rogne said. “They did it to drive growth there. They seem quite cavalier about the impacts to their neighbors. If the extreme event anticipated by the plan occurred, the diversion would flood out Kindred, Davenport and other towns. All you’d have left is Fargo and the valley.

“We’re not saying we can’t handle some water here. We’re already handling water. But to buy us all out on the 0.02 chance of a 500-year flood is wrong.”

There is pretty country here, these residents say, and history that spans generations – with more on the way.

“People come into my yard and say, ‘God, this is beautiful!'” Nipstad said. “I have a 13-year-old granddaughter who comes to visit and says, ‘This is where I want to live.’ It’s a 60-year-old house, and she says it’s her favorite house. I joke about selling it as lake property. I could guarantee that every spring there will be water all around it.”

Kyle Toppen was home from UND and working at a farm equipment dealership last summer.

“Before I started at the dealership, I think the chances that I’d go back to the farm were maybe 50-50,” he said. “But as I worked there, I missed it. That’s when I realized I wanted to farm. I didn’t realize how much I enjoyed doing it until I wasn’t doing it.

“I would love to go back and farm after college. But this diversion plan has created a lot of uncertainty.”

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