Water Quality & Farming: Looking for the Long View

The Star Tribune newspaper recently ran an in-depth series of articles about the environmental risks faced by our Minnesota waterways, focusing on the Upper Mississippi, the Red River and the Chippewa River. The last article in the series highlighted the Land Stewardship Project's work related to the Chippewa 10% Project, which is helping farmers and other landowners balance profitability with clean water. Featured was Pope County farmer Dan Jenniges and his innovative rotational grazing system, as well as examples of farmers who are trying out practices such as cover cropping.

It was a good series of articles and helped highlight what proactive measures all of us, including farmers, can undertake to develop healthier watersheds. However, that last article focusing on the Chippewa 10% Project left the impression that farmers really only care about their bottom line and not about the long-term conservation effects of their practices.

I’ve worked extensively with Dan and Linda Jenniges and some of the other farmers mentioned, and the story is more complex than that. He is respected in his area first as a successful farmer; a farm is a business and farmers can’t ignore the bottom line. But he is also a good steward and a conservationist, and the neighbors are noticing.

Recently I lucked into witnessing a revealing neighbor-to-neighbor exchange. I stopped by Dan’s farm one evening in August to do some monitoring on a field with a multi-species planting of cover crops. After talking on his porch for an hour about farming, water and government regulation, I made room for myself in the front seat of his pickup by moving a bunch of wrenches and we headed to the field.

When a neighbor approached from the other direction, the two farmers slowed, rolled down windows, exchanged machinery woes, asked after family and discussed crop conditions. Eventually the neighbor said, “Say Dan, I been meaning to ask you about that cover crop stuff, seems you’re the guy to ask.” Dan looked over at me with a big, $#!^-eating grin and then invited the neighbor to come join us at the field to talk about it.

Along the way, Dan pointed out a steep hillside where he had planted winter rye last year after corn, harvested it for forage this year and planted short season soybeans afterwards in June. The rye had left massive amounts of roots that made no-till planting difficult, resulting in a poor, uneven stand of soybeans.

But two weeks after planting, the region received almost seven inches of rain in three days. Dan said that if it hadn’t been for that root mass and the no-tilling, that hillside would have washed away and he’d have no soybeans at all, and a lot less good soil.

“I’m a lot happier with those beans now, a poor stand is better than no stand,” he told the neighbor.

Dan went on to say that the farmer he contracted with to plant the soybeans had come away afterwards cursing that stupid cover crop, wondering why anyone would ever plant the stuff. After the rains, that same farmer changed his tune and now plans to put in his own rye this fall. Dan enthusiastically explained the other advantages of no-tilling and building organic matter: feeding the underground life and sequestering/cycling nutrients.

He hit all the points and his neighbor was listening closely. Dan clearly understands that keeping his topsoil on his field rather than in the ditches and water has conservation and economic benefits. You really can’t separate the two.

We went on to the cover cropped field, rented from a neighbor who specifically asked Dan to farm his land after recognizing how he worked to reduce erosion and build soil. Here Dan talked more about soil biology and health, the benefits of a diverse species mix, and how grazing can improve soil health. He bragged about better water infiltration and how his kernel counts were up this year on fields that had produced cover crops for grazing in previous years.

I asked the neighbor why he was interested in trying cover crops. He said that last winter he drove by one of his fields and watched the hillside soil blowing in small drifts. It made him feel sick inside and he couldn’t let that happen again.

The neighbor asked questions about seed and Dan and I helped him pin down his main goals and even figure out a five-species cover crop mix to meet them. He was hoping to partner with the Chippewa 10% Project, and was interested in the Haney Soil Health testing and financial incentives we had available. He was especially excited that these fields were next to a highway and he wanted to let the public know about what he was doing there by posting signs.

With Dan still grinning we parted. I promised to put the neighbor in touch with our partners that could provide funding support for cover crop seed. Unfortunately, since our funding supports work in the Chippewa River watershed and his land is about a mile outside of the watershed, we were unable to partner with him or give him any sort of financial support. He had no other options for this growing season. While there is some federal funding for cover crops through the USDA's Environmental Quality Incentives Program, farmers have to apply for the program at least 12 months (sometimes 18 months) in advance.

LSP and farmers like Dan create opportunities for greater stewardship all around us. Dan’s work has influenced neighbors, increased his access to cropland and grasslands and upped the stocking capacity of the land he owns while keeping the soil on his hills and the water in his soil. He is intensely proud of these results, of the wildlife flourishing around his fields, of the clean snow in winter, and the undamaged hillsides in spring. His neighbors are noticing and deciding to follow suit without any knowledge of Dan’s bottom line. For me, that inspires a lot of hope… and frustration when there’s no support.

We need structures and programs ready to respond to this positive interest shown by Dan's neighbors. We need dedicated funding that encourages and reduces the risk of the initial learning curve when it comes to cover, perennials and even re-integrating livestock into farming operations. LSP and the Chippewa 10% Project are a few of the only resources for such support in this watershed, and we're reliant on restricted grant funding.

Like Dan’s soybean field, the benefits of building soil health don't usually emerge in the first year or so, and our current system favors a single season focus. We need policies that encourage a longer view, that can capture the interest in new conservation practices and that lead to nimble, accessible federal and state farm programs that advance stewardship practices in a timely fashion. Such programs must support a culture of profitable stewardship.

It’s not always about the bottom line, or the amount of the incentive—it’s also knowing that the system, as well as your neighbors, think that you’re doing the right thing.

Robin Moore coordinates the Chippewa 10% Project out of LSP's Montevideo office. She can be reached at 320-269-2105 or via e-mail.