When Katy Wortel thinks about her decades of environmental activism, including six years as the County Commissioner of Blue Earth, she initially seems preoccupied with regrets. She knows a lot of people have come to dislike her.
Wortel was shocked to win the District 3 board seat in 2002. She introduced herself as an ardent environmentalist who made a modest living growing pumpkins and squash on Pohl Road, where she and her husband own. 12 acres and lived in a colonial brown brick house. for about 40 years.
The county council overlooked the negative effects of agricultural land use on soil, water and air quality, she said. She saw a lack of commitment to be responsible stewards of nature.
“I had some notoriety, good and bad, so I introduced myself and surprised myself and all the other townspeople that I won,” she said. “I think it was the most surprise election we have ever had in this area.”
Since entering elementary school, Wortel, now 72, has been arguing. An independent spirit led her to frequent quarrels with her parents. Driven by her autonomy, she was not afraid of unpopular positions.
Rightly so, she was alone in her first instance of volunteering to improve the environment.
Before households had recycling bins, she said, people were bringing glass, metal and plastic to the Hy-Vee store in downtown Mankato. A frequent recycler herself, Wortel noticed how crowded the public trash can was.
She decided one day to clean it up, sort the items into their appropriate categories, and remove all the trash. His effort lasted a few years until the increased volume of recyclables made the job too tedious.
Its public activism began in the 1980s when the company operating the local Wilmarth coal-fired power plant proposed that it be converted into a waste combustion facility serving the Twin Cities.
She formed a coalition of concerned citizens who opposed it, arguing that cities need to do more to reduce and reuse waste before the Mankato factory agrees to burn it and risk pollution.
The effort did not stop the conversion. To date, the Wilmarth plant, now operated by Xcel Energy, burns waste at temperatures the county says are high enough to destroy or remove nearly all pollutants while generating electricity.
Despite the result, Wortel was emboldened. She came to be part of a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency task force monitoring garbage incinerators.
Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, she founded environmental groups such as Mankato Area Environmentalists and the Southcentral Minnesota Clean Energy Council, of which she is now a representative.
Wortel carried strong convictions in her tenure as county commissioner, often struggling to make compromises that conflicted with her values, she said.
“I like to argue and take the sometimes unpopular position, which by the way was perhaps the right position,” she said. “But I have never been a very clever person.”
Her independent mindset prevented some achievements that could have been seen as “small steps” towards substantive change, she said. But it also motivated her to pursue more ambitious goals.
The conflict she most regrets since her tenure is the backlash of her goals of moving the region towards more sustainable agricultural practices. Wortel is blunt: “I did a really bad job at that. I was a small farmer, and big farmers don’t really think of a small farmer as a farmer.
Because of this, she doubts that she is the right person to take a step forward against the predominantly male farmers who respect what she calls a “entrenched” farming system.
But the facts of the system, she says, remain grim. A trend towards large-scale corn and soybean monoculture has depleted soil health and eroded the market for small estates looking to rotate crops and encourage plant diversity, Wortel said.
“Farmers remove more from the soil than they put back,” she said.
“And some of them, I think, probably even understand it,” she added. “It’s just that they’re stuck in this system. And then it comes back to, How do we change the whole system and unlock the farmers? And that’s where we maybe could have worked together and not having so many head shots. “
Wortel was re-elected to the county’s board of directors in 2004 and served until 2008, when Tory businessman Mark Piepho toppled her with a better-funded campaign.
After decades of efforts to uproot or reform faulty systems, Wortel understands the plight of young activists protesting against the robust fossil fuel industry. The fact that man-made climate change is now a widely accepted reality, she says, is proof of their progress.
Unless they’re an “expert in human psychology,” she half-joked, any lawyer may have to live with the contempt of those who resist change.
Wortel only now understands why the disparity between his own just cause and that of the farmers – feeding their own families and many others – has ended in discord. Different underlying motivations have led to hostile disagreements.
Making a difference, she learned, inevitably seems to lead to making enemies.
“Sometimes when you’re working for change it doesn’t matter how good you are,” Wortel said. “A change agent is always put to the test, really. “
She does, however, see room for respect and empathy for her ideological opponents. In her case, she said it should have involved more recognition of farmers’ stress on how to make money.
As she retires and works with less visibility on environmental causes, Wortel finds that overall, she has made a positive change.
And she hasn’t lost faith in the power of little things that can improve the environment and get more people to work.
His pandemic plan was to eliminate common buckthorn, an invasive species, from the forest behind his house. In her side yard, she cultivates a garden for pollinators and a strip of prairie plants. With the New Year, she hopes to create a pond in place of her old pumpkin patch to reduce water runoff from the surrounding area into the Minnesota River.
She avidly compostes her food waste. She bought an electric car, a Nissan Leaf. It continues to reduce waste and recycle; during a walk around her property, she stopped several times to pick up plastic bags scattered by the high winds the day before.
Perhaps as important as tackling the well-funded forces driving climate change, she knows, is tackling the desperation that comes with realizing that it is probably too late to avoid serious consequences.
Her advice is to take the next step, the one you know is moral, even when future steps are unclear.
On irreversible global warming, she concedes, “We might all be down on our spirits for a while. But we have to heal and keep going.
“Now is not the time to give up,” she added with forced cheer. She stopped. “If ever.”