Answering farmers' questions about Minnesota's Nitrogen Fertilizer Management Plan

HarvestHave you read the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s 143-page Nitrogen Fertilizer Management Plan yet?

You haven’t? Well, what are you waiting for?

Just kidding. We don’t blame you if you think the Nitrogen Fertilizer Management Plan is a little intimidating. It’s in-depth, it’s technical and it’s 143 pages. Who has the time to read a 143-page document these days?

However, the Nitrogen Fertilizer Management Plan is something all Minnesota corn farmers should familiarize themselves with. The plan addresses the use of nitrogen fertilizer, something just about every corn farmer relies on to remain in business. The plan also addresses our state’s drinking water, something every farmer and non-farmer cares deeply about.

We’ve attempted to summarize the Nitrogen Fertilizer Management Plan using a series of questions below. We don’t cover every nook and cranny of the plan, but we tried to hit the highlights, dispel some rumors, and answer various questions we’ve heard about the plan from corn farmers throughout the state.

Let’s do this:

What is the Nitrogen Fertilizer Management Plan (NFMP)?
It’s a plan put together by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA), with input and comments from the agricultural community and organizations like the Minnesota Corn Growers Association (MCGA). The goal of the plan is to help prevent or minimize the impacts of nitrogen fertilizer on groundwater.

Is it new?
No. The plan has been around for a long time, but it was recently revised in March of 2015. MCGA, along with other agricultural organizations, provided input and comments during the revision period.

What’s the purpose of having a NFMP?
All of us — whether we’re farmers or non-farmers — value clean water and want to protect our drinking water resources. The NFMP provides a blueprint for MDA and farmers to work together toward the common goal of protecting our valuable drinking water resources from high levels of nitrate, some of which comes from nitrogen fertilizer, while also ensuring that Minnesota farmers are able to safely continue using inputs like nitrogen fertilizer to grow food, feed, fiber and fuel for the entire world.

Is groundwater contamination by nitrate a problem in Minnesota?
Tests on more than 7,300 wells in 60 townships between 2013-14 showed that 13 percent of those wells exceeded the health risk limit of 10 parts-per-million for nitrates. Eight community water systems tested high for nitrate, up from six systems in 2008. Private wells and water systems that exceed the standard can cause oxygen deficiency and death in infants and people with digestive problems. Once again, it should be everyone’s goal to reduce the number of wells and drinking water systems that exceed the nitrate concentration health risk limit. This is why MCGA invests nearly $4 million annually in valuable third-party research that focuses on conservation efforts and helping farmers better manage nitrogen fertilizer production inputs.

Is the NFMP really a “plan,” or is it just an excuse to pass more burdensome regulations on Minnesota’s farmers?
MDA does have regulatory authority for nitrogen fertilizer practices. Currently, MDA is developing these regulations for nitrogen fertilizer, as described in the plan. While some type of regulations could be implemented (more on that later), generally, regulations would not happen until other voluntary options have been exhausted. It’s important to understand that agriculture and groups like MCGA have an ongoing voice in this process. Agriculture has played an important role in shaping the plan up to this point, and will continue to do so with the implementation of the plan — especially when the discussion turns to regulations.

Does the plan ban fall/winter application of nitrogen fertilizer?
No. But fall/winter application will be restricted in certain areas of the state vulnerable to groundwater contamination because of soil texture, geology, or documented elevated nitrate in local wells. Regulation of nitrogen fertilizer would likely only happen in about 10 percent of Minnesota townships.

What areas are “vulnerable” to groundwater contamination?
Any areas listed under “not recommended” for fall/winter nitrogen application in the University of Minnesota’s Best Management Practices for nitrogen fertilizer. Some specific areas of Minnesota have been identified and include: Portions of Dakota County, localized areas of the outwash plains, re-charge areas in Southwest Minnesota used for rural water systems, Karst regions of Southeast Minnesota and a small number of community water suppliers. Overall, very few areas of the state fall under the “not recommended” category.

Are there other situations when nitrogen fertilizer regulations can occur?
Yes. The NFMP introduces a phased approach to potential regulations. In the first two phases, farmers in in townships that are approaching or exceed acceptable nitrogen levels in area wells, are given the opportunity to voluntarily implement best management practices to mitigate the effects of nitrogen fertilizer. If farmers do not voluntarily adopt best management practices, phases three and four introduce regulatory action and restrictions.

How are townships subject to the mitigation process identified?
Wells in approximately 250-300 townships with row crop agriculture and vulnerable groundwater, or a history of high nitrate levels will be tested. Testing is currently ongoing and is expected to be completed by 2019. Townships with 5 percent or more of private wells above 10 parts-per-million for nitrates or 10 percent or more private wells above 7-10 parts-per-million for nitrates will enter the mitigation phase.  MCGA believes that dedicated monitoring wells should be used to verify the presence of elevated nitrate levels in groundwater because private well data may be confounded by construction issues. We made this concern clear to MDA in a NFMP letter send to the department in January.

As a farmer trying to remain profitable and sustainable during these challenging times, I am concerned about these restrictions and the potential for regulation. Can you explain when and where these restrictions would go into effect?
As stated previously, in areas that are vulnerable to groundwater contamination, fall/winter nitrogen fertilizer application will be restricted in certain parts of the state based on the University of Minnesota’s Best Management Practices.  In areas with documented nitrate problems in private wells, farmers will be given the opportunity to voluntarily implement best management practices (i.e. crop rotation, cover crops, removing land from production, etc.) to protect groundwater sources from nitrate contamination. If these practices are not adopted, site-specific regulations will be developed and executed by the MDA Commissioner’s office, following a consultation with a local advisory team that will likely include other farmers. In other words, restrictions will not happen unless farmers do not voluntarily implement best management practices in specific designated areas.

Again, regulation of nitrogen fertilizer would likely only happen in about 10 percent of Minnesota townships.

But it’s not just nitrogen fertilizer from farms that contaminates wells. Does the NFMP address other possible sources of pollution?
The NFMP only focuses on properly managing nitrogen fertilizer. However, if a well or water source tests high for nitrogen, information such as well type, depth and construction is collected to determine if that may be the cause of the problem instead of nitrogen fertilizer used by area farmers. Other tests include construction issues, septic sources, animal sources and other sources. Regulation action will not be taken unless the source of the nitrogen problem comes from nitrogen fertilizer.

It’s also important to point out that MCGA invests in research efforts to help corn farmers use nitrogen fertilizer and other inputs as efficiently as possible in order to maximize their bottom line and protect water quality.

Bottom line: As a farmer, should I be concerned about the possibility of overregulation and restrictions on nitrogen fertilizer use as a result of this plan?
Naturally, overregulation is a concern for any business, whether it’s in the agricultural sector or not. Rest assured, MCGA and other agriculture organizations are working hard on your behalf to ensure that the goal of the NFMP remains to protect our drinking water sources, not introduce unnecessary regulations onto Minnesota’s farmers. We appreciate the efforts of MDA to work with the agriculture community on this plan as we all strive to improve our state’s water quality. Will there be disagreements and concerns? Of course. But the voices of farmers are being heard as the NFMP undergoes its latest revision.

One final note: MDA’s authority does not extend to regulating manure, but the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency could incorporate similar restrictions into livestock permits and feedlot rules.

I want to continue to monitor the NFMP as the latest revision is finalized. How can I track the plan’s progress?
You can sign up for updates directly through MDA here. You can also contact MCGA’s Policy Director Anna Boroff for updates. Finally, Warren Formo with the Minnesota Agricultural Water Resource Center is also an excellent resource.

Did you like this article?

Share this post with your friends!