In recent years many farmers have changed tillage and fertilizer practices for conservation and economic reasons. Still, in some sensitive areas, greater use of those practices would have a great impact on nearby water quality. In western Minnesota, the Chippewa River 10 Percent Project aims to achieve that by finding profitable ways to encourage farmers to increase the planting of grasses and other crops that do a better job of protecting water quality.
Living and working on the land, many farmers see themselves on the front line for conserving and protecting our natural resources of soil and water. Over the years they have adopted many practices to reduce impacts of agriculture harmful to the natural environment.
For example, most now use tillage methods that leave residue from corn and soybean crops, which helps reduce soil and fertilizer loss in storm water runoff. Many will let the grass grow along ditches and natural waterways in fields to filter and slow down runoff.
In certain sensitive areas – close to streams and wetlands – changing crops from corn and soybeans to grasses and small grains would have even greater environmental benefit. They do a better job of holding the soil and soaking up nutrients that otherwise could pollute water.
Convincing farmers to make such a change could become easier with economic incentives. That's the goal of the "Chippewa 10 Percent Project," developed by the Chippewa River Watershed Project and Land Stewardship Project in Montevideo.
Scientific studies and actual experience "suggest that changing farming practices on just an additional 10 percent of the watershed's sensitive agricultural land can be enough to meaningfully improve the safety of the water, reduce flood potential, restore wildlife habitat, stimulate a thriving local and regional foods economy, and foster a sustained future for renewable energy," says Paul Wymar, CRWP scientist.
"There's a real need for diversification, and farmers are reaching out and wanting to have another option in their farming practices," says Jim Falk, a Murdock area farmer who helped to introduce the project in fall 2010 at the Don and Helen Berheim farm north of Benson in western Minnesota.
One possibility is growing grass for energy production. Jim Barber of the University of Minnesota-Morris demonstrated a small-scale, experimental biomass burner. Burning prairie grass processed into small pellets, "it produces a gas, which we can pipe off and use for any number of things," Barber says.
The Berheims moved on to the farm about eight years ago. Rocky, rolling terrain with steep hillsides made crop farming a challenge, so they began raising grass-fed beef cattle. "We chose to keep it in grass because a lot of the topsoil is gone here," Don says. "It's washed away, blown away over the years. We're hoping we can restore that some. We seem to be gaining on that a little with the cattle."
Ingredients of change toward greater crop diversity including grasses may be found in the younger generation of farmers, and growing consumer demand for local foods.
"The interest in local foods is growing very fast," says Terry VanderPol, of the LSP office in Montevideo. "Using perennials (grasses) is one way to do that." Terry's brother, Jim, raises hogs on pasture for metro area markets. "The market is there, and it seems to be succeeding," he says.
Young farmers willing to specialize in producing local foods using crop diversity may be found through efforts such as the Land Stewardship Project's Beginning Farmer program.
Growing up in St. Paul, Andrew and Bonnie Wirtz knew little about farming. Bonnie learned about the program while working at an organic foods café in St. Paul. They decided to join and have working on farms and learning for several years.
"We're trying to get into farming. It involves a lot of visiting farms. Our goal is to have a multi-species environment," Andrew says. "We're still learning," says Bonnie. "Every farmer does it differently."
The Beginning Farmer program offers a clearinghouse where "beginning farmers can advertise their desire to rent or buy farmland, as well as work on a farm." Established farmers and landowners can advertise land for sale or rent, or any employment opportunities.