Social distancing no barrier to farm-city partnerships

Ag Urban aerial view

In the separate worlds of life in the city or on the farm, social distancing is nothing new. More than physical location can separate ag and urban lives, including issues like land use, water quality, and overall environmental stewardship.

Ironically, social distancing as we know it today may have helped bridge the ag-urban divide with the second Ag-Urban Partnership Forum going virtual due to COVID 19 guidelines. The Dec. 16, 2020, online forum drew nearly 250 attendees, more than the first in-person event in November 2019 at the Mankato City Center.

The conference led off with comments from Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) Commissioner Laura Bishop and Katrina Kessler, MPCA assistant commissioner for water.

Climate change and increasing precipitation are having a great impact on agriculture and overall water quality,” Bishop said. “We need to be resilient by working on soil health, reduced tillage, and water quality trading.”

Kim Musser, associate director of the Water Resources Center at Minnesota State University-Mankato, gave an overview of the 2019 conference. “This is a defining issue for our time. We must communicate and see other perspectives with trust and collaboration,” she said. It begins with “big picture,” systems thinking, followed by targeting with economic incentives, Musser said.

Trust, collaboration, communication, science, economics, and innovation emerged among the themes of speakers from agriculture, government, and conservation groups. The words stood out in “word clouds” generated on computer screens from real-time survey questions for all attendees.

The key issue initially fueling the conferences centers on the question, how can the urban and rural agriculture worlds work together to address water quality and other environmental issues? Cities face daunting costs for wastewater treatment. Agriculture dominates the rural landscape, and has a major impact on water quality. What if both worked together?

While environmental quality is the goal, getting there is all about the economy. And climate change.

Leif Fixen of The Nature Conservancy promoted the Ecosystem Service Marketplace Consortium (ESMC), which is developing the processes and technology that would pay farmers for “carbon credits” — a measure of capturing carbon to help mitigate global warming.

Farming practices that help store carbon can also benefit water quality: Buffers, no- or strip-tillage, water storage, and fertilizer management. In a trading arrangement, farmers can get paid for carbon credits that help offset the wastewater treatment costs and demands for cities.

“Trust is a big issue with government,” said Bryan Biegler, a farmer from Murray County and conference panelist. “I would be interested in trading if it could be trusted.”

Biegler and several other farmers on the panel are already on board with conservation practices that achieve certification through the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program (MAWQCP). Steve Petersen, a Paynesville area farmer, also certified, urged action with government and industry collaborating on local pilot projects. “I’m very hopeful, I don’t want this to become another ‘groundhog day,’ ” he said.

Minnesota Department of Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen reviewed the state’s groundwater protection rule, “forever green” and nutrient management initiatives. The groundwater rule is designed to protect drinking water sources in some rural areas sensitive to groundwater contamination. Forever Green promotes perennial crops such as kernza, a grain similar to wheat.

Julie Westerlund, of the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, described the state’s One Watershed One Plan program. Watershed geographical boundaries have replaced county boundaries for a more holistic way to address water quality among all counties, Soil and Water Conservation Districts, and other water management organizations with a watershed.

Fixen of the Nature Conservancy described a water quality trading pilot project in the Sauk River Watershed extending northwest from St. Cloud. Called the Headwaters Agricultural Sustainability Partnership, the project will study the costs and benefits of water quality practices and carbon credits.

Work in the coming year will focus on promoting the ESMC to farmers, with a wider launch of the marketplace in 2022, Fixen said. Over five years the project will reduce carbon emissions by an estimated 120,000 tons, he said.

Other conference panelists included industries already involved in water quality credit trading. Mitch Menden of Rahr Corp. cited offsetting wastewater permit requirements by paying for water quality improvement at locations in New Ulm, Le Sueur, and Nicollet County. Abby Morrisette of Bahr Engineering described how sugar beet farmers in central Minnesota are using cover crops to help offset similar requirements at the Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative processing plant in Renville.

“Building trust with farmers, finding what’s best for their farm and then society beyond” requires government agencies to be consistent and positive, said panelist Steve Schlangen, who runs a small dairy farm in the Sauk River Watershed.

The ideas of programs based on science, and trust among the people involved resonated throughout the morning, helping participants take another big step toward a genuine ag-urban partnership on the environment, water quality, and climate.