Stillwater farmers find balance between growing food and St. Croix stewardship

Axdahl Farms restore land to improve productivity and reduce runoff into the river.




4 minute read

Originally published on East Metro Water. Reprinted with permission.

Twenty-six years ago, Brian Axdahl and his father bought an old sod farm near the St. Croix River and plowed the turf under with moldboard plows. The soil was compacted from years of poor management. Lakes formed in the fields whenever it rained, and runoff flowed to the river, carrying sediments and nutrients with it.

Over the years, the Axdahls slowly nursed their farmland back to good health. Brian worked with the Washington Conservation District to build an earthen dam nearly a mile long with a controlled outlet structure to hold back runoff. He put eight acres of land into a conservation easement with the Minnesota Land Trust and planted native prairie to provide habitat for birds and pollinators. He began to plant cover crops in the winter, and started practicing no-till as well. Over time, the earth responded. Now, there is hardly any runoff, the soil is healthier, crops do better during drought, and there are no lakes when it rains.

Brian Axdahl and his father transformed an old sod farm near Stillwater into a eco-friendly operation that produces sustainably-grown, GMO-free fruit and vegetables. Today, he and his wife Leslie sell produce out of their garden store in town and to members of their CSA program.

The Axdahls now farm 550 acres of land spread out over several separate parcels within a 10-mile area. Brian grows fresh sustainably-grown produce for market and for members of their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, and grows green beans and sweet corn for whole-sale. He recently became one of 27 farmers in Washington County to be certified through the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification program.

How’s the water Minnesota?

Minnesota may be the “Land of 10,000 Lakes” but it turns out that only about 6000 are clean enough for fishing and swimming. Statewide, roughly 40% of our rivers, lakes and streams are officially listed as impaired by problems including too much mercury, too much bacteria, too many nutrients, or too few fish.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency tracks lakes, rivers and streams that do not meet state standards for fishing, swimming, or recreation.

Runoff from farm fields and increased flow from ditches and drain pipes is estimated to deliver 75-80% of the sediment and phosphorus to the Mississippi and St. Croix Rivers. In some parts of the state, nitrates have leached into groundwater, making well water unsafe to drink. As study after study points a finger at modern agriculture, many farmers in our state are beginning to feel defensive.

Yet, these statistics only tell part of the story. Per acre, urban landscapes actually contribute as much or more pollution to our waterways as farmland. Without practices such as stormwater ponds and raingardens in place, runoff from parking lots and roads can send a cocktail of pollutants into nearby lakes and streams. Because farmland covers more total area than cities and towns, however, it has a proportionately larger impact on our major river systems. In the Lower St. Croix watershed, for example, approximately half of the land is devoted to cropland and pastures, while only 9% is developed.

Within the Lower St. Croix watershed, farmland covers five times as much land as cities and towns. In the map above, yellow and brown shows areas of pasture and cropland, while pink and red indicates areas that are developed.

Like Brian Axdahl, many farmers in Minnesota are already working hard to protect the environment. They’re making changes to their tillage and fertilization practices, trying out new crops, and looking for ways to reduce erosion. The MN Ag Water Quality Certification was developed as one way to provide recognition to farmers as they make these changes.

Charting a path to a greener (and bluer) future

Within the Lower St. Croix watershed, many farmers in Anoka, Chisago, Isanti, Pine and Washington Counties are already working with their local Soil and Water Conservation Districts to implement conservation practices. Partners hope to work with more landowners in the next ten years.

In the Lower St. Croix watershed, local government partners are working to develop a shared watershed plan that will guide conservation work in our region over the next ten years. The goal is to support healthy ecosystems, recreation, public health, tourism, and quality of life, while still retaining local agriculture and a vibrant economy.

As part of this effort, partners are reaching out to farmers and agricultural landowners to ask them, “What are you already doing to protect natural resources and what else could you do with support from us?” So far, more than 50 people have responded, providing input through surveys and interviews.

Learn more about the Lower St. Croix “One Watershed” planning process at:

Looking forward to a cleaner St. Croix watershed

Angie Hong is the coordinator for Minnesota’s East Metro Water Resource Education Program, a local government partnership. In her free time, she enjoys singing, competing in triathlons, and exploring the prairies, woods and waterways of the St. Croix Valley. She is also mom to an exceedingly active seven-year old boy.


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One response to “Stillwater farmers find balance between growing food and St. Croix stewardship”

  1. Angela A Anderson Avatar
    Angela A Anderson

    Thank you for sharing this uplifting story