Written by Jonathan Eisenthal
The ballroom at the Intercontinental Hotel in St. Paul filled to overflowing on Saturday with an estimated 800 stakeholders all gathered to draw up the outlines of an action plan for restoring and protecting Minnesota’s waters.
A strong representation of farmers and agribusiness attended the meeting — 17 grower leaders from Minnesota Corn Growers Association (MCGA), joined by representatives of Minnesota Farm Bureau, Minnesota Farmers Union and other agricultural groups — all there to describe the work farmers have put into improving water quality, and to hear ideas for continuing that trend of improvement.
As a rule, the farmers expressed pleasant surprise at the mood that emphasized respectful collaboration rather than confrontation or placing blame.
“The different topics and discussions allowed me to talk to different people and they were listening, and I was listening,” says Noah Hultgren, a farmer in Raymond, Minn., and president of MCGA. “I’m hoping to learn more about how people tick and what goals they all have.”
The conference began with Gov. Mark Dayton making a call to action, that Minnesotans create “an ethic of water use” that makes acting in ways beneficial to water just the normal way people operate.
Through a report from the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board, the summit offered four action items, two with implications for the agricultural environment: “Increase and maintain living cover across watersheds” and “Ensure we are resilient to extreme rainfall.”
In a session about rural water quality, Prof. David Mulla spoke about a state goal of reducing ag nutrients in state waters 45 percent by the year 2040. A number of solutions are promising, he said, including precision agriculture technology and reduced tillage methods, but he emphasized increasing living cover as one of the most promising. He mentioned that University of Minnesota has created a program called ‘Forever Green’ to focus research efforts on annual and perennial cover crops that can reduce soil erosion and nutrient loss.
Grower leader Kirby Hettver attended the ‘living cover’ breakout session.
“We talked about annual and perennial cover crops, and we had a really good discussion,” says Hettver, who farms near Montevideo, Minn., and serves as secretary for MCGA. “We talked about the importance of supporting livestock and other industries as an economic driver to make it feasible to use covers. We talked about the importance of innovation and experimentation, not only at the university, but also on the farm, to make it a better fit. We
talked about the importance of local, trusted advisers, to help growers work on those plot ideas, execute the plots and learn from them. We talked about the importance of sharing the information across the landscape. Not just farmer-to-farmer, but across communities. Is it possible to get this information on a statewide database, to share what we learn on our own farms, to share ideas. We need to communicate, not only with other farmers, but with the general public as a whole.”
Hettver suggested to the group that the ‘Conservation Story Map,’ could offer a template for the kind of information sharing needed. The Conservation Story Map is a project of MCGA that offers a web site with an interactive map showing actual farm conservation projects and where they are taking place on the state map.
Another breakout discussion looked at the interrelationship of rural development and rural water quality. Jean Knackmuhs, a farmer and finance professional in Walnut Grove, Minn., found the session offered good, respectful communication among the different interests.
“A lot of ideas were offered,” says Knackmuhs, “The most important were to strive for better collaboration among agencies, agreeing that solutions for one area of the state won’t necessarily work for another area of the state because of soil types and other factors, and there was a recognition that we need flexibility. There was an understanding from the urban people that, rather than putting this entire economic burden on the farmers, they recognize it’s not just our problem.”
Weather extremes have made the state wetter, and storm events more powerful, which has resulted in increased flooding and erosion problems, so one of the breakout sessions focused on developing means for coping with these changes.
“In the urban areas, increasing any type of water storage was the biggest theme,” says Bruce Peterson, a farmer in Northfield and past president of MCGA. “Water storage has always been an option for agricultural lands, and there is probably room for more.”
Participants in this session noted the sea change from three decades ago when all development and building emphasized moving water off the landscape as quickly as possible — keeping it out of basements, out of buildings, and out of low spots in farm land. But storing more water is a way to blunt the power of floods.
“The biggest thing we have done on our own farm to hold on to more water is to reduce tillage,” Peterson said. “Then you have more residue and that can hold water. Growing healthy crops uses more water. We have been trying out cover crops, but I think that will be more of a fit with your earlier harvested crops — your canning crops, corn harvested for silage, seed corn — anything that comes off before the middle of September. If you are harvesting corn late October or Early November, getting a cover crop established is going to have more challenges. When we respond to conservation challenges by leaving more residue, it does leave the soil cooler and wetter. We want to do reduced tillage, but it is hard to grow a healthy crop in a reduced tillage system, without putting in more tile.”
As opposed to surface runoff, the timed flow of tile lines can reduce erosion, but even patterned tile has a capacity that can be overwhelmed by rain events where two or more inches fall in a very short period of time.
Tom Haag, a farmer in Eden Valley and also a past MCGA president, took the opportunity to inform people in his discussions about how far farmers have come in reducing fertilizer use.
“It’s a night-and-day difference. We really want to make sure the ground continues to be suitable for farming for future generations,” Haag said. “People in the cities and suburbs have to catch up to us in some ways. If they have a 1,500 square foot lot and they put three or four bags
of fertilizer on their lawns to keep them green, they may be putting quite a bit of fertilizer into the environment, and that’s totally unregulated. Farmers on the other hand are regulated, and we have to keep records. We try to use only as much as we need.”
The day ended with a panel discussion moderated by Lt. Gov. Tina Smith, which focused on turning the state’s water challenges into an economic opportunity. Leaders from private industry, including Ecolab, Dow, Mosaic, Pentair and TonkaWater talked about the high level of research and development of technology to respond to water quality problems. Water technology is a fast growing and productive segment of the state economy: Minnesota has some 13,500 water tech employees, who earn $885 million, and make Minnesota third per capita in water technology exports. We are 10th in the nation in the number of water technology patents.
“The best action we would like to see as part of a public action plan to improve water quality is to continue research,” says Hultgren. “MCGA has been able to fund third-party research and we want to continue to do that. It’s important to get beyond attempts to blame people, and to find real solutions to these issues.”