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Q & A: Joe Smentek, Director of Public Affairs for Minnesota Soybean Growers Association

Joe Smentek makes no bones about it. “I have no farm experience whatsoever,” says Smentek, the director of public affairs for the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association (MSGA). “I’m a city kid. The closest I came to farming is that my grandfather was a dairy inspector.”

Instead, he supplemented his environmental studies undergraduate degree with law school and an advanced environmental law degree. His training helps navigate chasms between farm and environmental interests in a state where canoes, boats, and walleyes are as common as corn, beans, and wheat. 

SF: How did an environmental lawyer end up working for a farm group? 

JS: I was an assistant county attorney fed up prosecuting wife beaters and drug dealers. As it so happened, soybean growers were getting tired of getting beat up by environmental lawyers. So, we had a conversation, and I ended up with the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association to help farmers better understand environmental regulations and why we have them. I also help environmental groups and regulators better understand the trials and tribulations that farmers have about environmental law and regulations.

SF: A law to buffer Minnesota waterways by farmers and landowners with perennial vegetation has been controversial. Why? 

JS: It is the right idea, but it goes about things the wrong way. Fifty-foot buffers are to go along waters listed as public by the DNR (Minnesota Department of Natural Resources). The 16½-foot buffers are to go along public drainage systems. Rather than looking at the NRCS technical manual and using the science of slope and precipitation to develop a buffer on what a field needs, we have these blanket 50-foot and 16½-foot buffers. 

In many cases, a 50-foot buffer would get torn right through (by water runoff) if what the field needed were terraces. On other fields, only 4 feet may be needed to improve water quality. The remaining 46 feet is an uncompensated taking. 

Farmers can request traditional funding with EQIP or put it in the CRP for buffers. Still, there is no official cost sharing tied with the law. 

SF: What other projects are you and MSGA working on?

JS: We’re working with the Minnesota Invasive Terrestrial Plants and Pests Center in looking at the role buckthorn plays in the soybean aphid life cycle. It’s arguably the biggest pest that soybean farmers have. Buckthorn is the only plant they overwinter on. 

The Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategy Project (WRAPS) is another one. We are working to demystify this project, so farmers can get more engaged in water-quality efforts. We also fund research to help farmers reduce tillage and use cover crops so they can build soil organic matter. This will help increase water-holding capacity and make soils more drought-tolerant. 

SF: Can agricultural and environmental groups ever work together? 

JS: My role is to break down distrust on both sides. Some of these environmental groups have never met a farmer, let alone set foot on a farm. Good things can come, though, when we form partnerships. I recently sat down with an environmental lawyer regarding biodiesel, and we talked about how it can help with (reducing) greenhouse gases. 

SF Bio

Name: Joe Smentek

Title: Director of Public Affairs for the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association (MSGA)

Background: Smentek started with the MSGA in 2013. He’s the only environmental lawyer employed by a U.S. commodity group. His background is on the environmental side, as he graduated from the University of St. Thomas (Minnesota) with a degree in environmental studies. After earning a law degree at Hamline University and an advanced environmental law degree from Pace University School of Law, he became an assistant county prosecutor in southern Minnesota before taking the MSGA position. 

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