The farmer’s perspective: Answering questions about agriculture’s impact on water quality

One way today's farmers work to protect water quality is through technology. Thanks to technological improvements, farmers can target their use of inputs like nitrogen fertilizer to where they are most needed.

One way today’s farmers work to protect water quality is through technology. Thanks to technological improvements, farmers can target their use of inputs like nitrogen fertilizer to where they are most needed.

Here at the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, we receive questions every day about farming, water quality and the efforts of farmers to protect and improve our states lakes, rivers and streams.

We decided to take some of the most commonly asked questions and answer them here on the blog. If you have questions that we didn’t answer in this post, hit us up on Twitter or Facebook and we’ll do our best to get you an answer.

Based on what I read in the media, it doesn’t seem that farmers are doing anything to protect water quality. Is that true?
Absolutely not. Most farmers implement common conservation practices like buffer strips, grass waterways, or conservation tillage. You can see just a few examples here on our Conservation Story Map. Many take their conservation efforts a step further and participate in other programs or partnerships. Nearly all Minnesota corn farmers contribute to the state’s corn check-off, which funds research efforts and unique statewide programs that focus on helping farmers improve and protect water quality.

Do farmers care more about profits than they do about water quality?
Of course not. While farmers, like any business, need to remain profitable in order to stay in business, that doesn’t mean conservation efforts are ignored. Often, conservation practices can help a farmer increase profitability by more efficiently using inputs like fertilizer and fuel. For example: Nitrogen fertilizer is expensive. The last thing a farmer wants to do – especially with today’s low corn prices – is over apply it and see part of his investment leak into a nearby waterway instead of helping the corn plant grow.

So you’re saying that agriculture has no impact whatsoever on water quality?
Absolutely not. As farmers, we’re continuously working to improve. One of those areas where we’re working toward improvement is water quality. That’s why we invest in research that seeks to help us better manage inputs like nitrogen fertilizer, reduce run-off and farm smarter. All of us – including farmers – have a role to play in protecting and improving water quality. Clean water is something all Minnesotans value and strive to achieve.

Is there any hope that our water quality situation can improve?
The situation isn’t all doom and gloom like some would have you believe. For example, a recent report from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency showed reductions in five of seven pollutants – including sediments and phosphorus – from our state’s waterways over the last 30 years. You can read that report here. If we set a goal of improving water quality, make the necessary investments, target our conservation efforts, and work together to achieve this shared goal, we will see better water quality.

If farmers are so concerned about water quality, how come they didn’t support Gov. Dayton’s buffer strip legislation?
The governor’s initial buffer proposal called for a one-size-fits-all 50-foot vegetative buffer along all waterways. That type of scattershot approach is not a wise use of limited resources. Conservation efforts should be targeted to where they are needed most and where they will make the most positive impact. MCGA and other farm groups worked with the governor to reach a compromise on his buffer proposal that, while far from perfect, is not a one-size-fits-all solution and allows farmers the freedom to continue making progress in addressing water quality concerns.

Is ethanol to blame for our water quality challenges?
No. Unfortunately, there are some people who try to blame ethanol for everything. A common argument used is that ethanol drives up corn prices, incentivizing farmers to plow up more land and plant it in corn. Truth is, corn prices are around $3 per bushel, less than half of what they were a couple years ago. Corn prices are also far below what they were when Congress passed the Renewable Fuel Standard – legislation that sets targets for the amount of ethanol in our fuel supply – in 2005.

I hear a lot about “Big Ag.” Can all of our water quality problems be blamed on “Big Ag?”
The clichéd “Big Ag” is a phrase used by critics of modern agriculture. It’s meant to discredit and wrongly label any farming operation that doesn’t align with what those critics think a farm “should be like.” It’s also a dishonest term. Yes, today’s farms look different than the farms of yesterday. Often, they are larger and more complex. But the vast majority of today’s farms are still run by families — often including multiple family members — not a nameless, faceless corporation that the people who use the phrase “Big Ag” would have you believe. Finally, the phrase “Big Ag” impedes efforts to develop improved solutions on water quality. It’s a divisive term, often used to score political points and re-enforce a flawed and rigid belief system about modern agriculture, not actually address a specific issue.

Is it possible to have a strong agricultural economy AND good water quality?
You bet it is. Some people will try and convince you that we must choose between one or the other. Those people are wrong. Yes, agriculture has challenges when it comes to water quality, but farmers, farm organizations, and many others are working to address those issues and get better each and every day. As Minnesotans, we all value clean water. Measurable progress doesn’t happen overnight, but it is happening. And it will continue to happen as long as we remain committed to working with each other instead of against each other.

Where can I learn more about the conservation efforts of farmers?
There are many resources on the web. Here are a few:

  • Conservation story map. This interactive map is a great way to learn how Minnesota farmers are implementing common conservation practices like grass waterways and buffers.
  • Minnesota Corn Growers research page. A summary of all the research funded and supported by Minnesota corn farmers, much of which focuses on conservation and water quality.
  • Discovery Farms Minnesota. A farmer-led effort to collect real-world data across Minnesota’s diverse farmland and help farmers better manage nutrients and reduce run-off.
  • Minnesota Agricultural Water Resource Center. A farmer-led organization that works to provide a research and education foundation to seek areas of improvement in farming practices that impact water quality.
  • University of Minnesota. The University of Minnesota partners with farmers to conduct research, hold educational events and lead other activities focused on farming and water quality.

Did you like this article?

Share this post with your friends!