With $9 million from USDA, Water Quality Certification goes statewide

Acting State Conservationist for USDA's Natural Resources and Conservation Service Walter Alberran speaking at Wednesday's MN Ag Water Quality Certification event.

Acting State Conservationist for USDA’s Natural Resources and Conservation Service Walter Alberran speaking at Wednesday’s MN Ag Water Quality Certification event.

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

Twenty-eight farmers signed up for and helped tweak Minnesota’s Ag Water Quality Certification program during its pilot phase. Now the program will be open to farmers in every watershed in Minnesota, thanks to a $9 million dollar grant from the USDA.

Two farm families who took part in the pilot helped announce the expanded program on Wednesday at the Orville Freeman building in Saint Paul — the headquarters of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA).

A farmer that installs grass buffer strips, water ways and other features to protect water quality can now get formal recognition, including signs with the official logo of Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification. It’s a three-step process: the farmer applies, takes a computer-based evaluation, then a technical adviser from MDA verifies the farmer’s water quality practices. In the future, MDA will license local crop consultants and retired farmers as certifiers for the program.

During the verification visit, the farmer and the adviser can review the operation field by field, and talk over any water quality issues. This process puts the farmer at the front of the line for technical and financial assistance to implement new water quality practices.

Once certified, the farmer can enter into a 10-year “certainty contract.” During that time, the farmer can operate without worry that new regulations — and sudden new costs — will be imposed. 

The governor and federal officials signed the pilot program into existence in January 2012. At the Wednesday announcement, Minnesota Commissioner of Agriculture Dave Frederickson promised that “every dollar of the grant will be invested in Greater Minnesota” through this “precedent-setting approach to water quality.”

The pilot program enrolled 10,000 acres in the Elm Creek, Middle Sauk River, Whiskey Creek and Whitewater River watersheds.

“My wife Tammy and I operate a third generation family farm,” said Glen Haag. Chosen Acres Farm, located near Winona, is a beef, corn, soybean and alfalfa operation on 800 acres.

“Conservation has been a part of our life, even in previous generations,” Haag said. “Great grandpa, he did a lot of the terracing. His boy continued on with that, with waterways and filter strips. And now we are carrying that a step forward with recent improvements in terracing and waterways.”

Haag said the pilot program was an opportunity to continue making improvements.

“Advancing with the new day and age, trying to implement more and more of these new practices. I dove into (the pilot program), using our farm as a ‘practice farm,’” he said. “We found some issues with (the program) initially, so it’s nice to get in on that floor level, to make those changes. We did some tweaks. Through this process, even with all the conservation we do, we found some areas where we could improve and so we did.”

They added nine new practices that improve water quality.

Officials noted that agriculture generates $75 billion dollars in economic activity and supports 340,000 jobs in Minnesota.

“We believe that a strong agricultural economy and healthy rivers, lakes and streams can prosper together,” said Matt Wohlman, assistant commissioner of agriculture for Minnesota. “This is what has made Minnesota an ideal location to launch the voluntary Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program.”

More details on the program can be read on MDA’s website.

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