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Worm farming in Pine County, Minnesota

by Ailene Croup for PiCK News

Warm days and sunshine are the perfect mix to conjure up dreams of lazy days fishing on the river.
Bring a can of worms down to a favorite fishing hole, prop up against a rock, load the hook up with worms, attach a shot and slip sinker and do a little river fishing
Drop a line from shore, drag set just right and get ready for a little snooze.

If those worms were picked up from a bait shop or dispensing machine, they may have been home grown in Sandstone, Minnesota.
Skip Thomson is a farmer; a worm farmer, and has been for 20 years.
When asked how he got into the business, his answer is, “Someone lied to me.”
He got into the business after talking to a local bait seller who said if someone could learn how to grow good worms, they’d make a good living.
“I've figured out how to grow good worms, but not how to make a good living,” Thomson kidded.
Growing worms is not just throwing dirt and worms together and - voila! Developing the right feed and the customers are critical to the business.
Thomson has had ups and downs and has perfected the time from egg to finished product; cutting the time from 18 weeks to 12 weeks.
He began by taking a class from “a little old grandma in South Carolina.” Thomson paid for the class and worked on her farm for four days. Then he purchased 20,000 to 30,000 worms from “a little old grandma in Illinois.”
He breeds, hatches and incubates the worms in plastic totes. If everything works right, it takes three to four weeks to hatch the eggs.
The worms will lay four to five eggs in a cycle which is a month to several weeks. The eggs, which are about the size of a BB, are counted and then checked for fertility - how many hatch.
The tub system of hatching and growing begins with a dark blue covered tub of eggs which he puts feed into three times a week. The feed is a mixture of Vitamins A, D, E, B, corn, barley, fish meal, alfalfa meal, linseed meal and Saluten - a poultry nutritional balancer of different minerals. Thomson developed the custom feed with company that supplies his feed.
He credits the shortened time from egg to harvest with this custom food blend.
The hatched worms are then put into a larger black open tubs. When the tub is full of feed from the three times a week feedings, he takes the worms out and counts them. A larger tubular, rotating, screen drum separates the castings (manure) from the worms.
Counting worms would be tedious. Thomson counts them by weight. He takes enough worms to make an ounce, counts them, multiplies by 16 to get the number of worms to a pound.
“I have perfected how many worms I can do in a tub,” Thomson said.
A specific number is put in each light blue, growing/harvesting tub. Too many in a tub and they won’t grow big enough. Too few in a tub and they get too big, too soon and waste space.
When they get a bad batch of feed or peat moss, it takes months to find out what caused the problem.
Thomson has a grinding mill which he uses to grind the feed into floor and then he mixes it with peat moss and other feed components. He mixes 16 pounds of feed to every bale of peat moss. From April through June, he buys feed by the ton.
When the worms are harvested and separated from the castings, they will be transported in a shipping bag which holds 6,000 to 8,000 worms.
With that much feed and peat moss, the castings build up, but they don’t go to waste. Thomson has devised a system to fill one-and-a-half yard bags which are purchased by nurseries.
“Worms sell best when kids are out of school because they are the ones who go pan fishing,” Thomson said. Most of his worms are purchased in Wisconsin in the summer, and in Alabama in the winter because they can fish year round.
Thomson continues to perfect and upgrade his business. The worm barn was replaced with the current building. It has an addition with modifications for capturing the castings. When that system is complete, it will auger castings from the barn to an addition on the west side and into the casting bags.

Sen. Rarick, Pine County officials report to townships

by Ailene Croup for PiCK News
Pine County Township Association met for the first of their two yearly meetings, last Saturday.
Most of the 33 townships were present to listen as county officials and newly elected District 11 Senator Jason Rarick talked about current issues of state and local government.
Rarick said there was discussion in the Senate concerning expanding broadband rurally by treating it as a utility like electricity.
PiCK News reporter Ailene Croup asked him to comment on the townships’ decreasing gas tax formula. The townships’ tax formula gives them $14.03 per resident and $325 per mile. That is a decrease from 2018 by 12 cents per capita and $3 per mile. Croup asked if that trend will continue.
Rarick said the Senate is working on increasing the share of gas tax to townships which are responsible for 40 percent of the roads in Minnesota and receive only 5 percent of the funding.
With increasing the gas tax part of the governor’s agenda, Rarick touched briefly on the discussion in the legislature about having GPS in every car and charging tax by the number miles driven.
The cost of the special primaries and elections for the cities, townships and the four counties, and the possible reimbursement from the State has also been discussed, Rarick said.
Governor Walz appointing District 11 Senator Tony Lourey to direct the state Department of Health and Human Services, in January, triggering the first special primary in January and the special general election in February. Rarick, who was District 11B Representative at that time, won the seat which sparked the second special primary and general election, in March, for his seat. Many townships felt the burden of the nearly $1,000 per election and primary which strained their budgets early in the year. Cities spent $2,000 per election and Pine County spent $16,000 for the combined primary and general election.
Rarick was also asked to get answers as to why townships weren’t getting a share of road fines collected in townships after the state passed statute 484.90 ensuring a portion of the fines went to townships and not just into the state’s general fund.
Lori Houtsma, who was appointed by Pine County Board to take over the assessor’s duties when Kelly Schroeder was appointed to the auditor’s job, said most residents will see “and uptick” in the value of property. She reminded the township representatives of the board of equalization coming up in April and their need to have at least one supervisor trained on each township board.
County Board Chairman Josh Mohr described his testimony to the State House committee concerning increasing the amount of tax returned to each township from casino taxes. He said half of the proceeds go back to the casinos and half goes to the state. Only 10 percent of what the state gets is then redistributed to the counties.
Pine County Sheriff Jeff Nelson said his biggest concern for the county is substance abuse. He also reported the county has a 16 percent chance of minor flooding with the spring thaw.
Nelson was asked why there were so few deputies patrolling at night. He said it goes back to budgeting, what the county can fund and how that impacts public safety. He said to address questions to the county commissioners concerning funding additional evening patrol deputies.
Katie Draper, Director of Government Affairs for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, spoke to the townships and offered these statistics. The Band owns 6,000 acres in Pine County and they are the largest property taxpayer in Pine County paying more than $1,256,000 last year.
Veterans Service Officer (VSO) Ben Wiener said the county has hired an additional VSO. Mindy Sandell will also be working in the Sandstone office to serve the county’s veterans.

Goodbye 55: MnDOT plans to raise speed limits

to 60 m.p.h. by April

from MnDOT for PiCK News

The Minnesota Department of Transportation is increasing speeds on 5,240 miles of state highways based on the recommendations of a five-year study released this week. The speeds will increase from 55 to 60 miles per hour.
Of the 7,000 miles studied, speed limits ultimately will be increased on 77 percent of rural, two-lane state highways, according to the final report. New speed limits go into effect once new speed limit signs are posted. Most of the signs posting the new speed limits are in place, with the rest expected to be up by spring 2019.
The Minnesota Legislature in 2014 mandated that MnDOT study on all Minnesota two-lane roadways with a speed of 55 miles per hour.
It is the most comprehensive study the agency has made in terms of miles studied and level of detail, according to Nathan Drews, engineering specialist in the Office of Traffic Engineering.
The study is also the largest system-wide change in Minnesota speed limits since the national maximum speed limit of 55 mph was included in President Nixon’s Emergency Highway Conservation Act bill in 1974. The Minnesota Commissioner of Highways later that year established an executive order about speed limits.
The $1.2 million study included collecting travel speed samples on each section of roadway and evaluating roadway geometrics and hazards to determine if a speed limit could be changed without affecting motorist safety.
The recommendation for a speed increase along each of these roadways considered the speed that 85 percent of motorists drive at or below along with an evaluation of other factors, such as access points, shoulder width, vertical grades and crash history.
MnDOT has conducted before and after studies on many roadways that recently increased to 60 mph. There was no change in the overall 85th percentile speed from before the speed limit change to after. The mean speed, which is the average speed of all drivers, increased by one mile per hour and the standard deviation, which is the measure of how spread out the drivers’ speeds were, reduced slightly.
“This means that after speed limits increased, travel speeds at the locations sampled were slightly more consistent between each vehicle,” said Drews. “In other words, more drivers traveled at a similar speed after speed limits increased. This is a desirable outcome, but this change is very slight and may not affect the frequency or severity of crashes.”
This most recent study echoes results from the previous studies. From 2006 to 2013, MnDOT increased speeds to 60 mph on 1,550 miles of two-lane rural highways. Studies conducted to determine the impact of raising speed limits on those roadways found that the overall 85th percentile speed before and after the changes were the same, the average speed increased slightly and the variation of the speeds decreased.
Drews said a properly selected speed limit can potentially increase the safety of the roadway by creating uniform travel speeds for all vehicles.
MnDOT plans to study the effect of the changes over the next several years to ensure these roadways continue to operate safely.
For more details about the study, see the “Final Report on the Evaluation of Certain Trunk Highway Speed Limits,” which lists the highways studied statewide and their speed recommendation.

Windemere Twp. has large, healthy fund balance,

king-sized road issues

by Ailene Croup for PiCK News
Windemere Township is the second largest township by population in Pine County. It has the second most miles of roads - tar and gravel - and a large fund balance. It also has projects and problems to match its size.
The town board met last Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018, for their regular monthly meeting. Residents were updated on several pieces of township business including road repair and the township’s first audit.
Palon Road has been a problem road and the topic of discussion for many months. The board said there was a meeting on Oct. 22, 2018 to discuss it and other roads, including Sturgeon Island Road and Harmony Lane.
Weather has delayed work on Palon Road. The road project was also reviewed at the October regular meeting and noted in the minutes.
One resident of the township, Vern Anderson, spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting. He said work is being “undone” on Palon Road which was done by Windemere Township.
Supervisor John Wesley said he hadn’t heard anything about that.
Seven to eight truck-loads a day are being hauled away and taken to a pit, Anderson added. He said the material wasn’t put in deep enough and the road sank.
Dale Sandberg, from Sandberg Trucking said they were digging out about 800 feet. He said they had to cut down into the road “a couple feet.” Two trucks were used to haul on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday of the previous week until 3 p.m. Sandberg said they put in 28 hours hauling with the two trucks. Sandberg is being subcontracted to do hauling work on the project by Casper Construction.
Tom, Casper Construction’s project manager, was contacted by PiCK News to verify the project bid. He said Casper’s bid was $784,500 on the Palon Road project and they were completing the project according to the township engineer’s specs and plans.
No township employees have been subcontracted by Casper.
In addition to the project bid, township employees have been working on Palon Road. A document listing vendors pay and employees wages, retirement and FICA was produced for July through September of 2018 and showed $87,992 had been paid to township road crew employees. The document stated that most of those employees worked exclusively on Palon Road and some worked on normal summer projects.
Township employee, Mike Buetow, is the township’s road maintenance manager and was listed as receiving wages during July through September. Buetow Trucking and Excavating was one of the Palon Road vendors on the list. They were paid $11,542.50 for work done on Palon Road.
Windemere Township Chairman Pete Steen is overseeing the project was the answer to one resident’s question concerning which board member was the road supervisor.
Resident Delores Gochowski asked, “When did Supervisor Dale Kirkeby lose his job as road supervisor? He is the one with road construction experience.”
“We decided that I would be the road supervisor,” Steen said.
The board decided they would set a meeting to discuss Palon Road, but there was no mention of a date by the end of the Nov. 8, 2018 meeting.
The Windemere Township website notes there will be a special meeting on Sunday, Nov. 18, 2018, at 11 a.m., to discuss Palon Road.
Audit notes
Recommendations from the audit included controlling the amount of money in the township’s checking account, which Treasurer Ron Mossberg told the board was at $1 million. The township will be receiving the second half of the levy soon, $325,000.
Mossberg asked that the board move $400,000 from the checking account into investment funds, since road repair was nearly complete for the year.
He also asked the board to move $116,000 from the the fire fund and $36,000 from the environmental fund to the general fund, also an audit recommendation. The board approved both recommendations.
Mossberg encouraged department heads to use the draft budget they created and to stay under $1 million next year. He said it’s the beginning of monitoring a 5-year cash flow of what the township buys and spends.
Advisory committee
Supervisors asked if residents were in favor of forming an advisory committee to bring township issues to the board. They would be chosen by and account directly to the board.
Resident Cindy Carlson said, “It sounds to me like you’re abdicating your duties as a board.”
She said the town board has no executive director and too many details have been lost. She added, the auditor’s recommendations are doable and there should be “some vetting” about who can bring what to the committee.
She said admitting there is a lot to do is a good thing and it shows signs of growing pains.
“When you give away something, it’s hard to get it back,” she reminded the board.

Grassroots officials want assurances county won't back out on opt-in zoning ordinance

by Ailene Croup for PiCK News
Pine County Board approved a comprehensive plan in 2017 and scheduled a meeting Friday, March 16, 2018, to discuss implementing the plan.
Throughout the comprehensive plan document were references to countywide zoning. Township officers and residents reacted negatively to a countywide zoning plan when it was introduced at a local government meeting early in January last year. It has been a topic of discussion at every joint meeting since.
Nine supervisors and residents from different townships attended last week’s 9:30 a.m. meeting. The board received responses by email from Anna and Wilma Townships who voiced opposition to countywide zoning.
Pine County’s Planning, Zoning and Solid Waste Department created four zoning options for the board. They were asking the board to choose option they would begin designing.
Option 1 - Do nothing.
Option 2 -  Create a land use ordinance that only addresses major land uses less suitable for township zoning such as gravel and solar similar to the shoreline, floodplain and subdivision ordinances. Townships continue general building permitting and land use regulation.
Option 3 - County creates a zoning ordnance which townships can opt-in to.
Option 4 - County creates a traditional zoning ordinance.
Dan O’Flanagan, Chairman of Dell Grove Township, said, “We don’t want county-wide zoning. I don’t think we should have to do this.”
O’Flanagan said their board keeps the township fees low. If the county did anything they would want to be able to choose whether they want the county’s package for zoning, he added.
Hallan said if the county did anything with zoning it would be an opt-in program. He said people see zoning as government overreach but then they want help “after the fact.”
The example he used was Finlayson Township’s construction debris dump. They asked for help and Hallan said the county had no zoning authority there. Countywide zoning is about protection, Hallan added.
Sandstone Township Chairman Keith Carlson asked about the county’s interest in controlling gravel resources. He said when the county gets involved with gravel, fees go up.
Kelly Schroeder, County Assessor, Solid Waste and Zoning Administrator, said a county zoning ordinance protects the county from liability. The plan is to design the ordinance with zones and each zone would have their own set of regulations.
County resident Darrell Jensen commented on blight which was addressed in the comprehensive plan. He said if someone has a line of old tractors in their yard, it’s different than a place with junk all over.
Sandstone Township Supervisor Gary Hinsch said blight is different when you get out of the Pine City area and up north into the country. “Up north, they don’t even know what blight is. We have stuff sitting out in the country waiting for the price of scrap steel to go up.”
Hallan talked about the change in farming land when farmers quitting their farming business and begin a start-up businesses in an agricultural area.
County Administrator David Minke commented that Option 3 seemed to be a preference and that he would have Schroeder and Caleb Anderson, Land and Zoning Resource Manager, “put some language together” for that option. “I think we need milestones,” he added.
Hinsch asked for a guarantee from the board if they went forward with zoning that it would be on an opt-in and opt-out basis.
“I could say the five people on the board could guarantee it,” Hallan said. He could not guarantee the boards after would adhere to that plan.
Minke said, “There is no desire to force zoning on townships that don’t want it.”
Town boards would have to have an opt-in ordinance to accept the county’s zoning ordinance for its district, Hallan explained. With this plan they can opt-out once they are in.
The newly formed county zoning board had several responses to the zoning options which included that townships ordinances should need to be as restrictive as the county’s.
One of the questions that was presented to the commissioners at the meeting was how a county-wide zoning ordinance would not take precedence over a less restrictive township ordinance.
In other ordinances, whichever is more restrictive - the state’s, the county’s or the township’s - the most restrictive ordinance is law.
Lauren Bethke, is an attorney with the state Office of the Revisor of Statutes which drafts laws in the area of Metro and Local Government; Property Taxes; Local Government Aid; Health-Related Licensing Boards; Children. She talked to the Pioneer and said she was not familiar with an opt-in opt-out zoning ordinance ever being done.
She said her job is to draft the laws not to enforce them.
Pine County Attorney Reese Fredrickson said Sherburne County may have attempted such an ordinance. He did not see in the state statute where an opt-in/opt-out would be prohibited.
According to the 2016 survey by the Minnesota Association of County Planning and Zoning Administrators, 56 of Minnesota’s 87 counties enforce some sort of countywide zoning.

Carlson in junior year has managed college with no debt

by Ailene Croup for PiCK News
Paying for a college education can mean a lifetime of debt for students.
College graduates beginning their working career at age 22 can be saddled with student loans on average of $100,000. The pressure to begin paying off the debt can be the difference between taking the first job that comes along after graduation or waiting for the best job offer.
Tuition and fees, room, board and books can cost $22,000 per year at a state college and $43,000 at a private institution. Students attending public universities out-of-state can expect to pay $25,000 per year.
Anna Carlson, the oldest of four children, did not want to take on college debt and she did not want her parents to be burdened with college tuition. Her mindset may be different than most people her age concerning her parents’ role in her continuing education.
“It shouldn’t fall on them to pay for everything,” she said.
Anna, like two-thirds of the population in Pine County, does not live in town. She lives on a farm in rural Pine County.
The 20-year-old college junior, the oldest of four children, is registered at South Dakota State University, in Brookings.
What’s unique is she has no college debt.
She took advantage of the post secondary education option (PSEO) offered at her high school during her junior and senior years. It is a program which gives students the opportunity to take college classes during high school at no additional cost.
She accumulated 25 college credits through her PSEO classes, the equivalent of nearly a year of college.
Anna is a caretaker for her grandmother, who is 97. She lives with her and takes care of her needs. She also is a ranch hand on her father’s farm. She is paid for the work she performs whether it’s shoveling manure, feeding animals, milking cows, making fence or vaccinating animals.
To date, Anna has spent about $10,000 on her education. When she gets paid, she registers for classes. She considers her work on the farm as on-the-job training and hopes to partner with her dad when her education is complete.
She is working toward a general bachelor’s degree. Her studies are directed toward agricultural classes and finance so she can learn to run a farming operation effectively, efficiently and profitably.
PSEO is where she started. She also attended Pine Technical College for two fall semesters.
She can choose where she wants to get her credits and has taken some more challenging classes offered online by Northwestern University. Northwestern has higher standards and she feels she is getting more for her educational dollar. Anna has also taken classes online from Lake Superior Community College, concentrating her credits in social studies, agriculture and business.
Classes such as biology, which have lab experiments, are not excluded for students taking classes online. Lab kits are sent to students who sign up for the classes, she explained.
Books are very expensive. Anna has found she can purchase used books through Amazon and she also has a Prime account which gives her free shipping. The company offers this service at no charge to students.
“Im a morning person,” Anna said. This works well for her when it comes to her job and school.
She’s up at 5 a.m., studies for a couple hours and then, she said, “I start my day.”
She is mastering the challenges of being an online student in rural Minnesota. She has a data package with a provider which also gives her free data from 3 a.m. to 8 a.m. It fits her schedule.
She takes the summer off so she can work as much as possible. Then she takes three or four classes in the fall. After the time off, Anna said she is ready to go back.
There are pros and cons to her method of education. One of the cons is her friends are away at college and the others are married. Even though she considers herself an introvert, she misses these connections.
If she could make any changes to her education plan, Anna said she would have a nine-to-five job so it would be easier to plan her study time, work time and personal time. She would also like to carve out more time to apply for scholarships.
Anna says she is “learning a lot.” Working with her dad is like job shadowing. She gets to ask questions as she works.
“I get the book smarts from college and the practical knowledge from dad. Almost like getting two educations in one.”

Obeys fight to keep land, county threatens eminent domain if no access agreement reached

by Ailene Croup for PiCK News
Pine County wants to gain access to the County Memorial Forest across land owned by James and Wilda Obey. The board intends to condemn the land and use eminent domain if no agreement is reached.
The Obeys and their neighbors, many whose land borders the forest, filled the boardroom at the Pine County Board meeting Feb. 2, 2018.
Commissioner Steve Chaffee spoke for the Land Advisory Committee saying they had attempted to negotiate access to the Obey’s property and they were recommending the county board allow 90 days to continue negotiation with the Obeys and if no agreement is reached to proceed with condemnation.
Chairman Steve Hallan said, “I’m fine with the 90 days but I know how this works. At 87 days they’ll want 15 more.”
The Obeys have owned the property in question for 40 years and had it officially declared Conservation Easement land 10 years ago.
Five years ago, the county exchanged land with the State which expanded the tax forfeited land, classified as Memorial Forest, to 1,120 acres. It borders the Obeys.
The county has access to the Memorial Forest land off County Road 14 and through the Chengwatana Forest. Logging is a typical practice on State and county forest land.
Pine County has requested temporary access to the memorial forest on a road/trail which crosses the Obey’s land. They have also requested purchase of easement to the county forest land. And, the county had the 33-foot wide, quarter-mile piece of land surveyed and valued at $8,000. Both requests were denied by the Obeys.
The land identified as Memorial Forest has 300 acres of mature trees which equates to about $190,000 in timber. The county also anticipates the ability to tap into gravel resources on the property and it is mentioned as a reason for wanting access.
The Obeys have a gate across the trail and have provided keys to the gate and allowed several people and neighbors to gain access which is allowed under the conservation easement. In the winter they open the gate for snowmobilers.
The Obey’s attorney James Taurinskas spoke for them at the board meeting.
He said the Obeys have put their land in conservation trust to preserve it and keep it pristine for their enjoyment. The land is less marketable now and devalued by about $400,000 because they will no longer be able to subdivide it and sell it off. The conservation stays with the land if it is sold.
Conservation easements are meant to protect land and preserve the natural habitat as well as shorelines of lakes, rivers and streams and scenic landscapes.
The landowner still owns the land but there are also restrictions which go along with the conservation easement.
According to the Minnesota Land Trust, easements restrict subdivision, commercial or industrial uses, mining, construction of buildings or roads, utilities, disturbance of agitation or topography and any activities on the property that might interfere with the conservation purpose of the easement.
Taurinskas told the board the county’s request for easement is contrary to the Conservation Easement’s restrictions.
A half dozen residents gave their opinions about the county board’s insistence on an easement or the taking by eminent domain.
One resident,Todd Libra, said he was against someone telling a private property owner about who can and can’t access land. He claimed the county didn’t have enough resources to get a meth lab out of the Memorial Forest. He also said there had been deer poaching and house break-ins of the residences surrounding the forest, until the gate was put up on the Obey’s land.
“I’m just trying to figure out who is in favor of gravel mining or clear cutting forest,” he said.
Another resident said Mallard Road, which extends from the Obey’s trail, will break down if logging and gravel trucks use it continually. Those are township roads and who will be repairing the road.
A motion was made by Chaffee for negotiations to continue and if no resolution, the access to the Obey land will come back to the county board to proceed with condemnation. The board approved the motion 5-0.
The expense of condemnation and the costs of the likely court action which will follow, plus building a road to accommodate the trucks over the wetland just beyond the Obey’s trail, and payment of damages and attorney’s fees to the Obeys is projected by Taurinskas to be conservatively $500,000, Taurinskas shared with the PiCK News.
The Minnesota Land Trust is obligated to oversee and enforce the terms of the easement and will legally defend it in the event of a violation.
Taurinskas said the cost to the county would most likely outweigh the $190,000 benefit of logging off the Memorial Forest by taking the Obey’s land through condemnation/eminent domain.