Farmer reaps benefits from conservation
Farmer Mike Peterson uses a zone tillage system, which entails tilling a zone for crop seeds and applying fertilizer in one pass. This system eliminates the need for additional trips across the field, saving on fuel and equipment costs. Leaving more residue on the field also helps reduce erosion that can harm waters downstream.
Conservation practices can reap many benefits for farmers, according to Mike Peterson who farms in the Northfield area of southeast Minnesota.
His fields tend to have a thin layer of top soil, the most productive soil for growing crops.
“I don’t want to give up that soil, and no one wants it downstream,” he said.
Maintaining that soil layer led him to a practice called zone tillage, which entails tilling and fertilizing the soil in one pass across the field. This one pass eliminates additional trips across the field to apply fertilizer or otherwise condition the soil. Since switching to zone tillage, Peterson has parked his stalk chopper and soil ripper. He is saving money on equipment and fuel costs.
Besides saving money, zone tillage benefits the soil. This type of tillage leaves the bulk of residue from the previous crop on the field while clearing that zone for planting the new crop. That residue helps boost soil health. It also helps keep soil in place during snowmelt and spring storms. Keeping the soil in place means keeping it out of streams and lakes where it can hurt water quality.
Peterson thanks the Conservation Stewardship Program for helping making the transition to a more conservative planting system. This program rewards farmers for producing environmental benefits on working lands. Peterson said the program encourages innovation.
“It helps fund different means of tillage practices that are a little bit off the bubble or out of the norm. It takes away the experimental phase of it and you bring it to reality,” he said
Peterson also said, “The program is wonderful. You can’t have too much leniency but you need some real-world flexibility.”
The Conservation Stewardship Program is a voluntary program, under the federal Farm Bill, that provides farmers with financial and technical help to protect and improve water quality, soil health, and wildlife habitat on cropland. The program describes itself this way: “The Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) presents a significant shift in how NRCS provides conservation program payments. CSP participants will receive an annual land use payment for operation-level environmental benefits they produce. Under CSP, participants are paid for conservation performance: the higher the operational performance, the higher their payment.”
The program pays farmers for conservation performance, with annual payments for installing and maintaining conservation practices, with a supplemental payment for adopting a crop rotation that conserves resources.
“It rewards some of the stewardship that we’ve been doing with our tillage practices, and some of our theories and conceptions on saving soil erosion and not moving nutrients off the fields I farm,” Peterson said.
County and regional Natural Resources Conservation Resources offices are now taking applications for the program with enough funding expected to enroll 12 million acres nationwide this year. Minnesota already leads the nation in the program with 3,232 contracts and more than $260 million obligated for conservation practices, according to the Land Stewardship Project.
“It seems to be a real valuable program, I feel, to water and soil health … it’s a program I’d like to continue,” Peterson said.
This program and Peterson’s operation are examples of farm practices that foster production while protecting waters downstream. In this case, those waters include Byllesby Reservoir, the Mississippi River and Lake Pepin. The MPCA is working with local partners to restore these waters for the benefit of aquatic life and recreation.