A Water Summit Systemic Solution: Continuously Clean Water Needs Continuous Living Cover

Water, as Land Stewardship Project board member Vince Ready says, is vital for life. When Governor Mark Dayton’s Water Summit takes place on Feb. 27, it’s likely a lot of innovative proposals for solving Minnesota’s water quality crisis will be discussed. That’s good, because this Summit is centered around one of the most basic questions any human can ask: how do we restore polluted water needed for our lives, and keep it clean for ourselves and our children?

To find solutions to that question in farm country, we have to understand that the corn and soybean system, which dominates the southern part of our state and makes up 75 percent of our cropland, is covering the landscape for only about 110 days annually. For the rest of the year, Minnesota’s farmland goes through a long brown season, in which there are no living plants protecting the land’s surface, and no living roots feeding the soil’s biological life below. That leaves the land vulnerable to soil erosion and runoff for most of the year.

That is a big part of the reason why the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency found no lakes and only a few streams in Minnesota's southwestern corner safe to swim in. It is why rural wells are routinely so contaminated with nitrogen that the water they produce isn’t safe for drinking. This past year, the Gulf of Mexico’s “Dead Zone” was one of the largest ever recorded—the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. A major source of this hypoxic zone is excess nitrogen fertilizer running off farm fields in Minnesota and other Corn Belt states.

Another troubling trend is the return of destructive soil erosion events that we thought were in the past—anyone driving in rural Minnesota these days can’t help but notice the increase in “snirt” (snow + dirt) that streaks across the land and collects in road and drainage ditches when the winds are strong and the fields uncovered.

Corn has a voracious appetite for nitrogen, and keeping this nutrient from becoming a pollutant is particularly tricky because of its ability to leach through the soil profile and find its way into water, especially at times when the land is not covered with living plants. Conservation efforts such as no-till may reduce erosion, but don’t adequately deal with our “leaky” nitrogen situation or the more frequent high-intensity storms that accompany climate change. One estimate is that up to 20 percent of nitrogen fertilizer applied to farm fields doesn’t stay to feed the crop, but rather escapes into the environment. The result? Minnesota Pollution Control Agency water sampling shows that 70 percent of nitrogen contamination of Minnesota streams is coming from crop fields.

Water pollution connected to agriculture isn’t about individual farmers making decisions in a vacuum. It's driven by a few multinational corporations that sell pesticides and seeds or buy and market huge volumes of a handful of commodities such as corn and soybeans.

Government farm policy also plays a major role in creating a landscape that causes major water quality problems. Programs such as the federally-subsidized crop insurance program encourage the plowing up of pastures and other perennial plant systems, replacing them with corn and soybeans. A Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study reported that during one recent five-year period, 1.3 million acres of grassland were converted to crops in Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska. The researchers said such conversion rates haven’t been seen since the 1920s and 1930s, and the result of that big plow-up was the Dust Bowl, one of the most severe man-made ecological catastrophes this country has ever seen.

A University of Wisconsin study shows that between 2008 and 2012, 250,000 acres of previously uncultivated Minnesota land was converted to row crops. Most of those acres were former grasslands, but 25,000 acres had been in wetlands—more than any other state. In addition, 13,000 acres of Minnesota forests transitioned to crops during the study period, which ranks our state second nationally in that category.

Much more federal funding goes for subsidies to maximize commodity crop production than goes into conservation, by a huge margin. It is clear federal farm policy is in need of major reform, and the Land Stewardship Project is working with our members on that front as discussions around the 2018 Farm Bill begin.

But there are some significant steps that can be taken right here in Minnesota’s watersheds to clean up our water and make good use of limited state dollars while getting the kind of positive impact citizens voted for with the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment.

Continuous Living Cover

The good news is that it’s been shown repeatedly that when more living plants are growing on the land for longer periods of time, our water is cleaner. On farmland, these year-round living plant systems—also called “continuous living cover”—can take many forms, from perennial grasses rotationally-grazed by livestock to annual cover crops grown before and after the regular cash crop growing season. It has long been known that perennial grasses and forbs, with their deep roots and year-round presence, hold more water in the soil and help clean it before it moves to streams, lakes or groundwater.

In recent years, studies show perennials can reduce runoff and erosion by as much as 90 percent. The use of small grains, brassicas and other cover crops to fill in the gaps around the growing season has also shown great promise for improving water quality, and are being used by increasing numbers of farmers. Cover crops can reduce nitrogen runoff by 20 percent to 30 percent, according to some estimates. No wonder the 2015 Environmental Quality Board Water Policy Report highlighted establishment of year-round living cover on farmland as a key way to clean up our water.

Community Conservation

For the past several years, LSP has been working with farmers to help figure out ways of maintaining more continuous living cover on the land in a way that’s profitable. Specifically, we’ve been working with farmers in the Chippewa River watershed in western Minnesota to develop systems that keep the land covered year-round while benefiting these producers’ bottom lines. Through the Chippewa 10% Project, which is a collaboration of LSP and the Chippewa River Watershed Project, along with various agencies, educational institutions and conservation groups, we are utilizing cutting-edge watershed mapping technology, modeling and people engagement. Individual conversations with farmers and landowners help them make decisions that match their values of stewardship and community.

Networks around management intensive rotational grazing, cover cropping and soil health, as well as conservation leasing with women landowners, identify barriers. These networks also connect people with resources such as Soil and Water Conservation Districts, the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and others to adopt farming systems that fit their needs. LSP has developed a Conservation Cropping Systems Calculator that helps individual farmers in the watershed do agronomic and economic calculations of their options.

What we found through this “community conservation” approach is that farmers, landowners, agency staff and others can be very innovative in balancing environmental protection with profitable food production. For example, some farmers have determined that replacing a row-cropped field with rotationally-grazed pastures provides a bigger pay-off than raising corn on land that wasn’t producing profitable yields most years anyway.

Others have figured out that integrating cover crops into their corn-soybean rotation helps break up weed cycles and creates the kind of soil health that reduces compaction and erosion, while reducing reliance on purchased fertilizer. That’s money in the bank—and less pollution and sediment in our rivers and streams.

Through this work, farmers and landowners have chosen so far to shift around 12,000 acres in the Chippewa watershed into new or enhanced continuous living cover, from cover crops to perennial grasses to buffers and management intensive rotational grazing. What’s happening in the Chippewa could have major implications for cleaning up water in the rest of the state. After all, this is the single biggest watershed tributary to the Minnesota River, one of the most polluted waterways in the Upper Midwest.

Hitting the Conservation Target

Perhaps the most exciting outcome of this work in the Chippewa River watershed is that it’s showing, by targeting the planting of continuous living cover and other conservation systems on key parts of the watershed, that we can have major benefits. Stream monitoring by the Chippewa River Watershed Project has shown that where at least 34 percent of the land was covered in plants year-round, water quality was good enough to meet standards for clarity and chemical contamination. As it turns out, on average 24 percent of the 1.3 million-acre watershed is currently covered in grass, hay, trees and other perennials, so adding another 10 percent overall might do the trick. Modeling shows continuous living cover provides the most effective reductions in runoff. Positive changes on the land, and in our water, are within reach.

But in order to be effective, that 10 percent of additional continuous living cover must be targeted at the watershed’s most vulnerable acres—those lands that are the most erosive and otherwise ecologically fragile. Those are often marginal for row crops, too. Farmers in Iowa are showing that by planting native prairie on the 10 percent of a row-cropped field that is the most erosive, a 95 percent reduction in soil and fertilizer runoff can be attained. As Iowa State agronomist Matt Liebman says, “We often pay for practices rather than outcomes.” Targeted conservation is a way of making sure the practices being put in place are producing the outcomes we want.

But we must support the entire infrastructure: we need both good bridges and fully functioning roads leading to them. Getting more cover crops established on a particularly vulnerable field does little good if water from bare land upstream overwhelms the system, damaging even the healthiest, most stable soil.

If Minnesota is serious about water quality, it needs to support community conservation efforts that not only target our most vulnerable acres (establishing grasslands and other perennials, as well as riparian buffers and wetlands, for example), but also improve the overall health of the rest of the landscape by integrating cover cropping into our corn-soybean rotation, getting more diversity into our crop rotations, and establishing more livestock on the land utilizing perennial forages.

But all of this means little unless farmers see that this can work for them, economically and practically, enabling them to reach the goals they have for their farming operations. In the case of cover cropping, farmers are finding that this system can reduce the need for purchased fertilizer while boosting corn and soybean yields during times of drought.

Farmers utilizing no-till production systems are finding cover cropping does a particularly good job of reducing compaction, improving soil health and reducing the yield drag that can come with transitioning from one farming system to another. In addition, we’ve worked with several farmers who are using fall cover crops to extend their livestock grazing system, reducing their need to purchase hay.

Managed rotational grazing of pastures has long been a cost-effective way to get established in the livestock business, since it relies less on expensive inputs and facilities. An exciting development in recent years has been the increased consumer demand for grass-fed meat products—in fact, it’s one of the fastest growing sectors of the specialty food market in the U.S.

The 2015 Environmental Quality Board Water Policy Report highlights promoting Minnesota as a source of grass-fed beef and dairy products as a way to “drive land use toward perennial crops.” There are already signs that other countries are quite prepared to meet the demand for grass-fed production. As many Minnesota farmers and ranches are already proving, there is no reason why our state can’t be a major domestic player in this market.

With the resources the state of Minnesota has, why not focus them on helping farmers transition to more continuous living cover systems? It will take research like the Forever Green plant breeding initiative at the University of Minnesota, investment in market development, and focusing cost share funds on continuous living cover systems.

The bottom line: innovative farmers, supported by their communities, government policy and profitable markets, can lead Minnesota toward a future where clean water is a reality for future generations.

Mark Schultz is LSP’s Policy Program director. Terry VanDerPol farms in western Minnesota and directs LSP’s Community Based Food Systems Program.