For residents of southeastern Minnesota, the past few months must seem like “The Season of the Nitrate.” It turns out nitrogen, that critical source of crop fertility, is quite adept at escaping our farm fields, and, in the form of nitrate, polluting groundwater. So much so that scientists, government officials, and physicians now recognize it as a significant threat to human health in the eight — Dodge, Fillmore, Goodhue, Houston, Mower, Olmsted, Wabasha, and Winona — counties that make up the “karst region” of southeastern Minnesota. More than 9,000 residents in that region were or still are at risk of consuming water at or above the EPA standard for nitrates (10 milligrams per liter), according to a letter the agency released in November.
The Land Stewardship Project has spent much of the past several months working with our members and allies in the region to help them grapple with this issue, and for good reason: virtually all of the drinking water in the area comes from underground aquifers, which are extremely vulnerable to being contaminated by pollutants such as nitrate. And when nitrate is detected in the water, it’s a safe bet that other chemicals, such as pesticides, are also polluting the aquifer.
Much of the media attention related to this issue has focused on how it puts people concerned about clean water at odds with the agricultural community. Actually, this offers a prime opportunity for farmers to put in place practices that will not only keep nitrates and other ag pollutants out of our drinking water, but begin the process of disrupting the corn-bean-feedlot machine in a way that it helps them build soil health profitably.
But there is a reason the majority of Midwestern farmers have abandoned diversity and are focusing on input-intensive crops like corn: government incentives make it just about the only way to remain viable. Building agricultural systems based on diversity and healthy soil requires non-farmers to support ag practices that create a public good. In other words, it’s time for a little teamwork.
That doesn’t mean focusing completely on proactive incentives and rewards for good farming practices to the exclusion of everything else. After all, the first step in addressing a problem is acknowledging that you have one in the first place. And it’s pretty clear what the source of the problem is: fertilizer and liquid manure runoff from crop fields. According to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, 70% of nitrate pollution in Minnesota comes from commercial fertilizer escaping cropland alone.
That’s what prompted LSP and our allies to file a petition in April calling on the Environmental Protection Agency to use its emergency authority under the Safe Drinking Water Act to address the fact that nitrate contamination is causing “an imminent and substantial endangerment to public health” in the karst region of southeastern Minnesota. The EPA responded by requesting that the state’s Department of Agriculture, Department of Health, and the Pollution Control Agency address the issue. Earlier this month, those agencies, in turn, released an “Addressing Nitrate in Southeast Minnesota” work plan. Like I said — it’s been a busy few months for discussing nitrate pollution.
So, the fall of 2023 (and now the winter of 2024) will be remembered as a time when the nitrate pollution issue got the attention of regulatory agencies, which is good news for southeastern Minnesota residents and anyone else who is drawing their drinking water from farm country aquifers. But what is equally exciting are the results emerging from an effort to incentivize proactive solutions to the problem.
The Olmsted County Soil and Water Conservation District, which is in the heart of karst country, has launched an innovative effort to create the kind of year-round root structure that soaks up nitrates while making farming less reliant on continuous plantings of fertilizer-intensive crops like corn. Providing farmers incentives to put in place soil-friendly practices like cover cropping is nothing new: SWCDs, the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, and even nonprofit environmental and regenerative ag organizations have been providing such assistance for years. But as the recent Land Stewardship Letter reports, the Olmsted County Groundwater Protection and Soil Health Program takes a more holistic approach to building soil that is water-friendly.
For sure, the program pays farmers for planting cover crops, but it goes a couple steps further by providing financial incentives to convert corn and soybean ground to soil-friendly crops such as oats or hay, as well as perennial pasture that’s rotationally grazed (under a managed rotational grazing system, livestock manure and urine evolve from being waste products to fuel for building healthy soil biology). A key part of the cover cropping portion of the Olmsted County program is that farmers get paid for allowing the covers to grow at least 12 inches high before terminating them. That’s important: research shows that the taller you allow a cover crop to grow, the better it is at soaking up excess nitrates and building the soil’s overall health.
This past fall, I spent time talking to farmers enrolled in the program and seeing firsthand what practices they had put in place, and I came away impressed with how this initiative is helping producers take a big picture view of building soil health and doing it in a way that bolsters their financial bottom line. Overall, the program is based on promoting the five principles of soil health that were popularized by soil health pioneers in North Dakota: armor the soil, minimize disturbance, increase plant diversity, keep roots in the soil as long as possible, and integrate livestock.
A little over a year into its implementation, the Olmsted County Groundwater Protection and Soil Health Program has resulted in thousands of acres of cover crops being planted, as well as land diversified into small grains, hay, and pasture. The SWCD estimates that as a result of acres enrolled in the program, along with fields managed under similar practices that aren’t officially part of the initiative, over half-a-million pounds of nitrates have been kept out of the area’s water.
This is exciting stuff. It remains to be seen what the overall, long-term results of such a program will be (it’s scheduled to be a five-year initiative), but if it keeps striking that balance between clean water and profitable farming, it could serve as a statewide, or even national, model for promoting the kind of holistic farming systems that are truly regenerative. This comes at a time when farmers LSP works with through our Soil Builders’ Network are proving they can build soil health profitably, even in a year like 2023, when extreme drought threw a monkey wrench into a lot of people’s plans. In addition, as LSP outlined in a recent Myth Buster, there are increasing signs that farmers may not need to be applying as much commercial nitrogen fertilizer as once thought in order to be productive and profitable; it turns out we’re not giving biologically active soil enough credit for cooking up its own fertility. The practices promoted by the Olmsted SWCD program can help soil develop that kind of self-sufficiency.
The timing of nitrate pollution’s moment in the spotlight couldn’t be better. The problem has been clearly defined — now let’s show the public and policymakers how innovative farmers can address this issue long into the future. As the letter LSP and its allies sent to the MDA, MDH, and MPCA stated: “Our region’s farmers are the solution to cleaning up our region’s drinking water.”
And there are farmers who are up to the challenge.
“It’s not demonizing to be realistic about the problems we face in agriculture,” Martin Larsen, a crop farmer and Olmsted County SWCD conservation technician, told a standing room-only crowd at a Water Quality Forum held in Lanesboro a week before Thanksgiving. “As a farmer…I’m very real about my role. I do think as farmers there are many of us who play a role and contribute to the science and want to be part of the solution. There are solutions that are collective.”
The crowd, which was acutely aware of all the bad water news flowing through their area these days, responded with thunderous applause.
LSP managing editor Brian DeVore can be reached via e-mail. For more on LSP’s work related to clean water in southeastern Minnesota, contact LSP organizer Martin Moore. For more on our work helping farmers adopt practices that build soil health profitably, contact LSP’s Alex Romano.