Soil and water

‘Green’ programs encourage Minnesota farmers to tackle water pollution

A few years ago, Chisago County farmer Max Gustafson needed a way to keep his cattle from wandering into a nearby wetland and polluting it in the process.

What began then with a federal grant to install a 1,350-foot fence has blossomed into a series of eco-friendly practices on Gustafson’s farm near Center City, which has been owned by his family since 1879.

The fence has allowed a buffer zone of plants to grow naturally between the pasture and the shores of the wetland that stretches from South Center Lake. Next, Gustafson planted hay on erosion-prone soil in another section.

And now he’s adopted the no-till planting method on his nearly 300 acres of corn and soybeans, leaving the soil largely untouched. Green practices have helped protect the area’s water from soil erosion and cow manure.

“The water here in the Chisago Lakes region is a really important resource for everyone,” Gustafson said.

Convincing farmers to stop tilling their fields or maintaining buffers between waterways doesn’t happen overnight, said Craig Mell, administrator of the Chisago County Soil and Water Conservation District. The district holds regular demonstration days where local farmers talk about what they are doing on their own land.

Agricultural runoff from manure, waste topsoil and fertilizers can pollute lakes and streams and cause algal blooms, as well as contaminate some rural drinking water wells. It eventually empties into rivers such as the Mississippi, which can carry pollution to the Gulf of Mexico. There, algae feast on nutrient runoff and die, creating an oxygen-depleted “dead zone” each summer.

While all counties in Minnesota have Soil and Water Conservation Districts, Chisago County also has a Lake Improvement District that raises funds to protect the waters of its chain of lakes. This local fund has been an important tool in improving water quality, Mell said.

“We went door to door to start talking to farmers, talking to landowners about these projects,” Mell said. “In many cases, a neighbor has to do something first.” Gustafson, he added, “was a great example of a leader.”

Gustafson said he first heard about no-till during a field day, from another farmer who had been using the technique for 15 years.

In the spring, farmers typically plow their fields and turn the black soil so the soil warms up and prepares for planting. But with no-till, the soil is not disturbed except for the new seed, which holds the soil in place, reduces erosion and helps water infiltration. Roots from last year’s crop remain in the ground and die, leaving pathways for water to infiltrate, Gustafson said.

A 2018 review of studies on what drives farmers to adopt clean water practices, published in the environmental journal Sustainability, showed that person-to-person interaction was an important factor. “Conservation education can be improved by encouraging more people-to-people contact between conservation agencies and farmers, and the need for farmer-to-farmer communication,” the study says.

He also found that financial incentives can encourage early adopters of conservation practices. Mell’s office regularly seeks funding from local, state and federal sources to assist farmers who may need assistance.

Gustafson received $156 per acre from a federal program to plant hay on 8 acres to stop erosion, $13.80 per acre in federal money to practice no-tillage, and about $3,000 in state and local funding for its closure.

These incentives are usually linked to contracts that can oblige farmers to maintain water protection practices for a period of up to 10 years. There’s always the possibility that they won’t stick around after the contract ends, Mell said.

But Gustafson said he has no plans to quit. He has found that not plowing his fields in the spring saves him time and reduces tractor fuel costs, in addition to preserving his soil.

The result of Gustafson’s efforts and other water quality projects funded by the Chisago County Lakes Improvement District is that the North Central and South Central lakes have been removed from the list of impaired waters. of Minnesota.

“The work we do is to get good conservation on the ground, which makes a big difference to water quality,” Mell said.