McDonald's, RDO are targeted by potato protesters

One might call it a McProtest. A small crowd of protesters gathered outside of the Detroit Lakes McDonald's Tuesday evening -- a scene replicated at seven other area McDonald's on the same day. The idea was to try to grab what they say is some vi...

Toxic Taters protested at McDonald's Tuesday evening. DETROIT LAKES TRIBUNE/Brian Basham

One might call it a McProtest.

A small crowd of protesters gathered outside of the Detroit Lakes McDonald’s Tuesday evening - a scene replicated at seven other area McDonald’s on the same day. The idea was to try to grab what they say is some vital attention.

“I used to take my kids here all the time,” said protester Char Ellis, “but they’ve felt the effects - people’s health is being affected and many of them have no knowledge of it.”

The group is called “Toxic Taters,” and its mission is to convince the McDonald’s Corporation to essentially force its potato growers to cut down on the amount of pesticides and chemicals they use. In this case, that’s RDO.

RDO is one of North America’s top potato farmers, with much of its product going to McDonald’s. Based out of Park Rapids, the company has fields all over the region that grow roughly 2 billion pounds of potatoes every year.


But if RDO is trying to fend away pests, it cannot seem to shake Toxic Taters, which has kept buzzing around them for some time now.

Tuesday, protester Zach Paige walked up and down in front of McDonalds dressed as a sad-looking Ronald McDonald.

“This affects people where they live, too, because the fungicides they (potato growers) spray will drift, and it affects their health when they breathe in those carcinogens,” he said.

Managers at the Detroit Lakes McDonald’s released a statement from its corporate headquarters, part of which read, “McDonald’s USA remains committed to taking steps towards reducing pesticide use in potatoes. As part of our 2009 commitment, we require a comprehensive audit of U.S. potato growers annually to identify best practices in pesticide reduction, as well as water and fertilizer use.”

RDO also released a statement.

“R.D. Offutt Company takes our role as a steward of the environment seriously,” it read. “We continue to reduce the use of chemicals on our farms while practicing application processes that are industry leading, and most importantly, best for the environment. We work with our partners at the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture on an ongoing basis to further develop sustainable farming solutions for the benefit of the environment. Our efforts to protect the environment have been recognized across our industry.”

However, to those behind Toxic Taters, RDO’s efforts have been but a little McNugget of effort.

“We’ve requested from them to give us some information about what they are spraying and on some of the work they say they’ve been doing, because they tell the media they’re trying to grow sustainably,” said Amy S. Mondloch, Toxic Taters coordinator, “but when we ask them for facts on that, they refuse. They just give  us  this  dog and pony show, but then won’t tell us anything.”


Anne Struthers, a spokesperson for RDO, would not disclose what the company uses on its fields, but says the company provides information about its  crop protection to the appropriate governing bodies and is recognized by customers and industry experts as a leader in continuous innovation in sustainable food production and responsible use  of crop inputs.

“Like any business, we do not share our trade secrets,” she wrote. “Crop protection product use is one of many practices we consider part of our recipe for success, including Integrated Pest Management (IPM) practices which we have successfully employed for years.”

A widespread issue

Although they seem to be the super-sized target, RDO isn’t sitting alone on the group’s radar; this is an issue that touches people throughout the region on both sides and on scales of all sizes.

Norma and Don Smith of rural Frazee say they had a good sheep business before potato farmers moved in next to them in 1995 and began spraying the fields.

“In 1996 we did not have any lambs,” said Norma Smith. “And in 1997 we lost a third of the flock - they were poisoned because they had been sprayed.”

Smith says only the sheep in the barn and out of harm’s way reproduced. She says their cattle breeding was also severely affected and says she’s even been inadvertently sprayed while in the yard.

“I lost my singing voice after that, and my husband also has problems with his voice now,” said Smith, who says she can feel the affects of the chemicals every time her neighbors dust the crops. She says she knows they try to be careful, but says there’s just no way to completely contain the chemicals.


“They go out there in a 10 mile an hour wind and they think that’s okay, but it doesn’t take long to drift away,” said Smith, who plans on writing to McDonald’s headquarters as well to implore them to force a change in the industry.

“They (farmers) say they need to do this to raise potatoes to feed the world, but I don’t think they’re worried about that - they’re worried about their money,” said Smith. “And what’s going to happen with the next generation and the one after? We were given this earth to enjoy and raise our families and raise our food, and they’re putting chemicals into it and contaminating the soil and our water and us. It needs to stop.”

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Paula Quam joined InForum as its managing digital editor in 2019. She grew up in Glyndon, Minnesota, just outside of Fargo.
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