Involve farmers in the water quality conversation

Doug Albin

by Doug Albin

As a third-generation family farmer, I’ve been paying attention to agriculture water quality issues for a long time.

On my farm, like many other Minnesota farmers, I use common conservation practices like grass waterways and buffers. I was also one of the first farmers in Minnesota to install a saturated buffer, which protects waterways from nitrogen fertilizer and other nutrients that could run off my fields during heavy rains.

I share this not to brag, but to give a real-life example of what’s happening on many Minnesota farms in the area of water quality. Gov. Mark Dayton recently announced that he will convene a statewide water quality summit in early 2016. As the summit approaches, I want to ensure that the voice of the farmer is heard in the ongoing discussion on water quality.

Why do I want farmers included? Because we have a lot to offer – and plenty at stake. People are tired of hearing the same rhetoric on farming and water quality. They want progress. They want people cooperating, working toward improvement and seeking solutions. At the same time, most Minnesotans understand that farmers – like other business owners – are rightfully concerned about burdensome and expensive restrictions that could threaten their future.

We live in a state where residents voted to tax themselves through the Legacy Amendment, partly to help protect waterways. We all care about water quality, from the governor to farmers and everyone in-between.

What most people don’t know is that Minnesota corn farmers (and those who grow other crops, as well) take that commitment a step further. Corn farmers contribute to our state’s corn check-off, a voluntary “tax” on every bushel of corn sold. About $4 million in check-off funds are used annually to support research through respected institutions like the University of Minnesota to seek solutions to water quality challenges. This research also helps farmers better manage the use of nutrients and improve soils.

Again, I share this not to brag, but to demonstrate that farmers are aggressively working to improve. We live in the communities where we farm. Protecting our area’s waterways is important to us.

As a farmer and fellow Minnesotan, I’d like the governor’s water quality summit to serve as an opportunity to build a stronger partnership between farmers and government. Farmers do not want to be a prop in another episode of political theater. We want to be involved in the water quality discussion, and be an important part of a broad coalition that leads the way toward improvement on an issue that impacts everyone.

I keep mentioning “improvement” because, yes, I think we as farmers can do better. We are not perfect, but we work every day to increase our knowledge base and become better stewards of land, soil and water resources. However, the situation in our waterways isn’t as doom and gloom as some proclaim. We’ve made a lot of progress since I began farming in 1976.

For example, a recent report from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency showed reductions in five of seven pollutants — including sediment and phosphorus — found in Minnesota waterways over a 30-year span. The same report showed there’s room for improvement in the area of nitrogen, but farmers are working on it. Of our 33 active research projects, 20 are focused on nitrogen management, reducing loss and improving water quality within farming practices.

What’s it going to take to continue down the path of improved water quality? Today’s modern agriculture technology makes a big difference. So does commitment to research.

Thanks to technological advancements, for instance, farmers can vary the amount and timing of fertilizer application based on where it’s most needed. And, research has taught us that when it comes to specific conservation practices, where you implement certain practices matters more than how much. Conservation practices are most effective when they’re targeted in vulnerable areas and fit the landscape. A scattershot approach can cause more problems than it solves.

Improving our state’s water quality is a big task, but we can do it if we work collaboratively as fellow Minnesotans and don’t give in to simply assigning blame. I’m hoping the governor’s summit is a step toward a more collaborative direction.

Doug Albin is a family farmer in Clarkfield, Minn., and serves as Chair of the Minnesota Corn Research & Promotion Council.

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