When it comes to soil health and water quality, farmers have always been some of the most conscientious and concerned people. This is due to their deep, hands-on connections with soil and water and nature.
Farmers physically feel their soil and can tell if it is too wet or too dry for tilling, planting, harvesting. They test their soil to make sure it has the necessary minerals in order to produce good quality crops to sell and eat. They regularly check their water to ensure its safety for the life and health of their families and the animals they raise. And they know that their land practices, the way they farm, can greatly affect the health of the soil and the quality of the water not only on their land, but also on surrounding land, rivers and lakes.
During the drought and Dust Bowl of the 1930s, it was because of farmers, their concern, and their farming practices, that the U.S. Congress passed the Soil Conservation Act. This led to state governments creating Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCD) to teach and encourage farmers and landowners how to develop land practices that would conserve and more wisely use soil and water resources for the benefit of everyone.
Now, almost 90 years later, great strides have been made in recognizing and improving soil health and water quality, due partially to the partnerships developed between the farmers, government agencies, and the SWCDs. However, there is still much room for improvement, and famers are still an important part of the research and work towards these goals.
Leading the way to improvements in land practices and water quality is the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program (MAWQCP), a program through the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA). This voluntary program gives farmers and agricultural landowners the opportunity, according to the MDA website, to “take the lead in implementing conservation practices that protect our water. Those who implement and maintain approved farm management practices will be certified and in turn obtain regulatory certainty for a period of ten years.”
Ryan Clark, Ag Water Quality Certification Specialist with Carlton SWCD, reports that there are currently 15 farms in Carlton County that have completed Ag Water Quality Certification. In addition, there are five farms that are working towards certification by implementing a variety of projects, several of which are partially funded by grants through MAWQCP.
One of those farms working towards certification lies just west of Moose Lake and is owned by Russ and Renee Peterson. The Petersons raise beef cows and calves on an 80 acre farm that has been in Russ’s family for many years. However, it had not been a working farm for a number of years, except for the few head of cattle they raised on the farm before they bought it from his mother in 2007.
It’s a lovely farm full of history and memories and generations of hard work. It also has a lazy stream, a tributary, that flows through the property to the Kettle River. It is this stream where many cattle have sought their water over many years. It is also this stream that led the Petersons to seek help to protect the quality of water not only on their land, but also for the whole Kettle River Watershed system.
With guidance from Troy Salzer (who was then employed with the University of Minnesota Extension in Carlton County), the Petersons started their quest in 2010 by contacting the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to help with several different projects. Each of those four projects helped quite a bit to protect water quality, according to Clark.
The fencing project created separate paddocks which “allow the Petersons to rotational graze and improve forage production all while improving water and soil quality.” The watering project “provided year-round water sources for the cattle” so they could “water from these troughs instead of from the streams and wetlands in the pasture. This prevents pollution of surface waters.”
The travel lane project, added Clark, allowed the Petersons to “move cattle around on pasture while protecting the sensitive areas near the stream running through the length of the pasture. This stable surface prevented soil degradation and runoff to the stream.” Lastly, NRCS helped them “install a stream crossing in the pasture by providing a solid rock base for crossing the cattle in a designated spot. This further protects the stream from runoff and pollution from cattle activity.”
In early 2019, the Petersons contacted the Carlton SWCD seeking MAWQCP certification for water quality and to discover ways to further improve their land. They discovered that they could receive additional assistance to improve the conditions on their farm, especially during the winter and mud seasons when several head of cattle have to be kept in pens adjacent to the old dairy barn. During these seasons, significant amounts of rain water was flowing down the barn and shed roofs, through these pens, and into the stream which runs nearby.
According to the Petersons, conditions have been really bad during the last few years, as it has been “so wet, more than what we recall as normal, and with lots of mud!”
With financial help from a MAWQCP grant and funds through the Carlton SWCD Cost-Share program, the SWCD, along with NRCS engineering technician Ben Ellefson, worked with the Petersons on two additional projects to help lessen these problems and further protect water quality.
First, they designed and installed “roof runoff structures,” which, according to Clark, “involved digging a trench and burying perforated drain tile under rock to collect and carry clean rainwater from the barn roofs around or under the cow yard rather than through the manure and into the stream.” This project, which was completed several weeks ago in mid-September, has already improved the mud situation and has removed some of the polluted runoff to the stream.
Second, a heavy use area protection practice was designed and installed in early October for a hay bale storage area. “This entailed building a gravel pad to provide adequate drainage and a stable surface for storing and moving hay bales for winter feeding. This area previously contributed some sediment runoff to the same stream from the bare soil conditions and tire rutting,” shared Clark. “Installing this gravel and recycled asphalt pad will prevent further soil degradation and runoff.”
Future plans for the Petersons include a new ag waste storage facility so they can “abandon their pens near the stream for a concrete slab for feeding cattle and storing manure under a roof in a more appropriate location,” according to Clark. “This will allow them to store manure more effectively and further prevent rain water from carrying bacteria and nutrients to the stream and ultimately to the Kettle River.”
The Petersons and their four children have put in a lot of time, labor, and cash into these projects in their quest to improve water quality. There are, however, three main things for which they are thankful.
First, they praise the valuable resources — the technical, engineering and financial assistance — that the SWCD and NRCS have brought to their farm. According to the Petersons, the SWCD and NRCS do a lot of the engineering work and financial planning beforehand and “you know and see what you are going to get before you have to commit” your time and money. There are no unanswered questions and little guesswork.
Second, they appreciate the MAWQCP program that not only shows recognition for all the hard work farmers do to protect the environment, but also gives the farmers certainty that they will be in compliance with any new water quality regulations. It also provides cost-share funding for conservation practices (like their projects) to help farmers achieve water quality certification.
Lastly, the Petersons say that it is through these projects, as well as daily farm activities, that their children have “been exposed to and see the many issues” involved not only with farming, but with natural resources and conservation.
These memories and experiences will always be entrenched in their children’s lives. These experiences, like the family farm, are part of the legacy their children will carry no matter what they do or where they go. These experiences will further develop another generation of people who have deep, hands-on connections with soil and water and nature.
Kim Samuelson is the elected supervisor for Carlton SWCD’s District 4. For more information about the ways the SWCD and MAWQCP can help farmers, contact Ryan or Alyssa at the SWCD at 218-384-3891. You can also check out SWCD project work and information on Facebook or on their website at www.carltonswcd.org.