$1.1 Million grant funds farmer-driven water quality research

Farmers believe that raising food efficiently goes hand in hand with taking good care of the soil and the water.

The farmer-funded Minnesota Agricultural Water Resource Center (MAWRC) has received its first major grant from an outside organization— a $1.1 million grant to fund a project called “Developing Diagnostics to Improve Water Quality and Soil Health on Tile Drained Lands in Minnesota and Wisconsin.” The money comes from USDA’s National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

As many as 100 farmers in Minnesota and Wisconsin will take part in the three-year study, measuring nutrients and sediment flowing from tile drains, in order to find ways to improve water quality.

“The point is not to compare one farm’s results to another farm’s, but rather to help each farm continuously improve,” said Warren Formo, director of MAWRC.

“We’ll take samples and the results will give the farmer something like a stoplight: green means you are doing a great job, red means your are probably losing more nitrogen than you want to or than you ought to, and we need to fine-tune your nutrient management. And then there would be a yellow light where we need to explore whether the losses are due to really large rains, seasonal factors or are there management areas where we could make improvements.”

Discovery Farms has a dozen ‘core farm’ sites in Minnesota, two dozen in Wisconsin, where MAWRC and Discovery Farms Wisconsin are overseeing a long-term project, intensively monitoring nutrient and soil losses through both surface runoff and tile drains. In the new project, they will select a ring of farms in close proximity to a core farm site, focusing on tile drains alone, in order to develop water quality information that reflects the specific characteristics of the region or watershed.

“Our whole program at MAWRC is designed to provide useful information for farmers so they can address whatever water issues they are facing,” Formo said. “Each sector of agriculture, and in different regions of the state, they are facing different issues. In some cases they are talking about how to manage manure and feedlot systems. In other places, it’s tile drainage systems, and in others, it’s irrigation. As a statewide organization focused on all of these issues, our goal is to gather sets of data and information that is helpful to each of those subsets of farmers.”

MAWRC won the grant against a lot of competition —170 requests totaling $100 million came in to NRCS, which awarded $26.6 million among 45 projects.

MAWRC is funded by farmers through voluntary ‘check-off’ contributions drawn from the proceeds of agricultural commodity sales. The founding groups that provide most of MAWRC’s funding are Minnesota Corn Research & Promotion Council and Minnesota Soybean Research & Promotion Council.

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