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 shoehorned 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 community college instructor from Northern Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio (KAXE.org).