Written by Jonathan Eisenthal
The land that brothers Nathan and Sean Collins farm in Murdock, Minn., has been in production for 150 years. They are the fourth generation of farmers in the Collins family.
According to Nathan, the thriving of that land — as healthy and productive as its ever been — and the thriving of the Collins family goes hand in hand.
That’s why he jumped at the opportunity to join the Green Star Farms Initiative, developed by Minnesota Agricultural Water Resources Center (MAWRC). Collins sees this as the next tool to help his family ensure that farm, family and community continue to thrive well into the future.
Sean and Nathan, along with their wives Jessie and Jessica, run a farm that includes beef cow breeding, corn, soybeans, sugarbeets, and custom harvesting both crops and forages.
Green Star offers an online worksheet that allows farmers to benchmark current conservation practices and access information on others that might be a good fit for their individual farm. The worksheet’s 32 questions cover everything from soil erosion to nutrient management, water quality and pesticide application.
“I appreciated the simplicity of it,” Nathan said. “It’s very direct, very concise. Here’s x-number of things that will make your farm better. Here are things that will make you a better steward of the land. It gets you thinking about, ‘hey this is something I should be doing, or if I am already doing it, how can I do it better?'”
But, Nathan sees Green Star just as much as an opportunity for the public and especially government officials who mold environmental policy, to get a more accurate picture of what farmers are doing, and their positive mindset toward water quality.
“I’m 35 years old, and I grew up on the farm, but I didn’t come back to the farm until I was 23,” Collins said. “My parents really influenced me in the way of looking at farming. The way they lived on the land and cared for the land. My wife and I made the decision to come home. It didn’t matter what it cost us. We decided my wife Jessica would stay home and raise the kids. Our children being raised on the farm, the way I was — I wouldn’t give it up for the world. No amount of money would get me to move from where I am at today. That said, I have to be able to live on this land for the rest of my life, and I want to make sure my family can too. And their children. So if I don’t keep this land at the best quality I can, I have failed.”
Water quality and water management are a huge part of things moving forward, according to Collins, who says that people may not appreciate the role that education plays in successful farming. To stay vital a farmer is continually learning and improving how he raises his crops and animals.
“If we don’t pass on our land in better condition than we received it, there is no way our farm will be sustainable,” Collins notes in the family farm’s website, “Our daily goal is to produce more food while using fewer inputs, such as fuel, fertilizer, and pesticides.”
The Collins are among the generation that have pushed use of nitrogen below a pound per bushel, reaping the benefit in advances in agricultural science, genetics, farming methods and technologies. Their website speaks of their use on the farm of technologies like GPS-guided autosteer, automatic row shutoff and nozzle shut off.
“Our house, where our family lives, is surrounded by our fields,” Nathan said. “I won’t let my kids be in or around anything that is harmful. That means that what I grow and how I keep my fields are safe for my kids or anybody’s kids. If I wouldn’t let my kids eat it, I wouldn’t let anyone else touch it either.”
Nathan and Sean encourage any farmer to go through the Green Star Farms Initiative worksheet. He sees it as a part of farmers showing the public, and particularly lawmakers, how committed they already are to conservation methods that limit the environmental impact of farming.
“Water quality has been an issue for some time,” says Jeremy Geske, a watershed education specialist at MAWRC. “We are seeing a focus in the Minnesota legislature on several aspects of water quality, including tile drainage and nitrates in the water and the connection of the two — it’s important to gather more information about that. These things are being discussed, and as farmers, we need to be part of that conversation.”
The fact that the connection between specific farm practices on specific soils and topographies is still not well understood and requires more research is an important point to make in this discussion. Farmers can help make sure that regulation doesn’t jump the gun, establishing practices whose outcomes have not been fully demonstrated, or trying to place a one-size-fits-all solution across agriculture that would be as ineffective as it was expensive.
“The educational part of Green Star comes when the farmer takes all the questions and uses them to reflect,” Geske said. “My experience is that farmers are harder on themselves than anyone else might be. When we have collected statistically significant numbers of responses, we will maybe see some trends where farms are indicating risk, and that can help us direct research dollars, whether it’s through MAWRC’s Discovery Farms Minnesota program, or other research projects, so that we can help increase information around all these issues.”