Farmers are moving earth (and planting grass) to deliver clean water

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

This edge-of-field monitoring equipment is part of the Root River field to stream partnership.

For five years, more than 40 farmers along the Root River have been studying and planning and this spring they will break ground on over 100 projects to create grassed waterways, sediment control basins and other structures to help achieve clean water goals for the Root River, one of the state’s ecological gems.

This is called the Root River Field-To-Stream partnership.  Kevin Kuehner, a soil scientist with Minnesota Department of Agriculture got the partnership together in 2009, and it is a true private-public partnership. Some may find surprising the mention of its participants in the same breath: Monsanto provided funding, along with the Nature Conservancy and Minnesota Agricultural Water Resources Center. Public funds were leveraged through the Minnesota Clean Water Legacy fund. The project is a study of the effectiveness of sediment and nutrient control practices you will find on almost every farm.

One of the participating farms is called Rolling Acres.

“Our name describes our farm, Rolling Acres,” says Richard Johnson, who farms in partnership with his son, his two brothers and two nephews. They raise corn for silage, alfalfa, and manage a 1,100-head dairy farm, as well as raising hogs. They jumped at the chance to learn more about the farm’s impact on water quality and how they could improve practices to help ensure clean water.

“We’re far enough off the river valley that it starts to level out, but it’s a pretty heavy mix of slopes, a fair amount of highly erodible and a fair amount of non-highly erodible — we’re right on the edge of that, coming off the Root River and the Mississippi River Valley,” Johnson said.

Johnson’s worked without cost share to construct or repair 6,000 feet of grassed waterways last year because they are very concerned about doing the right thing and being good land stewards.

“Ultimately, this water ends up, four miles down the course, in the trout streams that we all want to preserve as best we can,” Johnson said. “And we’re very aware that we all contribute (to water quality degradation) by the time the Mississippi gets to The Gulf (of Mexico), so if we can do some things so that we can still be farming on a manageable, profitable level, and also mitigate the water quality issues, it should be a win-win.”

Kuehner set up field edge monitoring stations on the farms, measuring runoff, phosphorus, nitrogen and sediment losses.

And then the Partnership brought resources expert Ron Meiners on board. Meiners walked all the farms, scouting areas that could benefit from erosion control structures. He went in with the incredibly detailed elevation maps the state has created over the past few years. The farmers were aware of most of the problem areas in their fields, but the detailed conservation planning maps turned up still others with potential to become problematic.

“We broke it down into high priority projects in higher risk situations, and then moderate priority projects,” said Meiners, who is the retired district manager of the Root River Soil and Water Conservation District. He is also a retired farmer, which helps him gain the confidence of the producers in the Root River watershed. The project has focused on three sub-watersheds: the headwaters of the Root River, Crystal Creek and Bridge Creek. They have achieved 97 percent participation of the landowners in these stretches.

Meiners said: “To date, I have identified 400 practices that could be put on the landscape in both those categories. Then I went to the landowners and showed them the report I wrote up about my walkover of their property, showed them the high priority practices — I think I identified 70 high priority practices. The landowners stepped right up to the plate — I have over 100 practices ready to implement this spring. That’s just saying volumes. Not only were they interested in treating the high priority practices, but they are saying, ‘as long as you are here, and as long as the contractor is here, and you can provide the technical assistance, let’s put in this waterway or let’s put in that sediment control basin.’ We’ve got 105-110 practices that have been surveyed, designed, signed up for cost-share and we’re ready to start installing those practices this spring.”

Those practices are in addition to what the farmers already had on their farms. For exanple, 42 miles of grass waterways and 66 ponds structures were identified in the Bridge and Crystal Creek watersheds alone. Meiners also identified existing practices that were in need of rehabilitation, which allows growers to improve water quality efforts without taking additional land out of production.

Kuehner will continue the field edge monitoring through 2018 or 2019 to assess how the newly implemented practices impact water quality metrics. The fields under study represent just a small portion of a million-acre watershed, which itself is one of 81 watersheds in the state.

“We picked three trees in a forest, to better understand how the forest works,” Kuehner said of his hopes that the study will eventually lead to data that can help all farmers to continually improve their land stewardship. “We are truly grateful to the farmer’s participation. It’s a testament to their leadership and collective stewardship.”

To learn more about the Root River field-to-stream partnership, click here.

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