A farmer in North Dakota is letting researchers try a new approach to studying the environmental impacts of agriculture by turning his entire farm into a sort of real world laboratory, called Discovery Farms.
The North Dakota farm, near the small town of Enderlin, doesn't look much like a research lab. Two fence posts and an old tire mark where a field drain tile funnels water into a ditch. It's where researchers gather water quality data.
The tile drains water from a nearby field. Water that flows off of this land eventually makes its way to the Red River. The water samples will tell researchers if fertilizer from this field is flushed away with the water.
Kent Bartholomay raises corn, wheat, sunflowers and soybeans. His farm is about 50 miles southwest of Fargo, where the flat Red River Valley gives way to the rolling terrain of the prairie pothole region.
"We're just trying to see if we're losing fertilizer and how much," Bartholomay said. "We try to do stuff environmentally friendly, and fertilizer costs money, it was really expensive last year. Whatever we can do to get a good crop and save money."
Bartholomay is one of three North Dakota farmers selected for Discovery Farms. The U.S. Geological Survey has set up monitors that measure the water coming off the fields through drain tile and in surface runoff.
Automated devices take water samples whenever there's enough rain to cause runoff. The water quality is then tested. Weather and soil data are recorded around the clock.
Bartholomay said he was sold on the idea because the goal is to help him be a better farmer.
"I was kind of skeptical but they aren't really checking us or trying to get us in trouble," he said. "[With] a lot of government agencies, it seems like they're trying to find something on you, get you in trouble one way or another."
NDSU researcher Roxanne Johnson said the idea is for researchers and the farmer to collaborate.
"We're not out there to shut anyone down or say wow, this is terrible," she said. "We are going to share that information with the landowner and say this is what's going on and maybe you want to do something about it if there's a problem. And like Kent said, he doesn't want his hard earned money flushing down that ditch so it's a win-win situation for everyone."
The government or universities often recommend best management practices or BMPs to farmers.
NDSU Agricultural Engineer Tom Scherer said university research is important, but can't compare with data gathered on a working farm.
He said many BMPs are based on science only from a small university research plot.
"What we're gathering is probably a different paradigm of how to really evaluate what farming does on the land and what some of these management practices really do," Scherer said. "We might find some of the BMPs we've been recommending are not best management practices; they might be worst management practices."
Scherer said it's very common for farmers today to have a college degree, perhaps even a master's degree, and they are much more likely to challenge university researchers. He said that give and take can mean better solutions for farmers and the environment.
The North Dakota Discovery Farms are just getting started. The goal is to gather at least five years of data from each farm, before moving the project to another farm.
U.S. Geological Survey Hydrologist Kathleen Rowland thinks, as the Discovery Farm concept catches on, it will lead to many improvements in farming practices.
Wisconsin and North Dakota are currently the only two states with active Discovery Farms, but Rowland said there's great interest in other states like Iowa and Minnesota.
"Hopefully they'll develop their own program and we can all join together to exchange data, information and agricultural practices," Rowland said. "I think it would be a big benefit to the agricultural community here in the United States if more Discovery Farms could be brought on line."
Minnesota might have Discovery Farms established by later this year.
Rowland said what's learned from data gathered on Kent Bartholomay's farm will also be useful to other farmers in the region.
The biggest challenge for North Dakota farmer Kent Bartholomay might be waiting several years for data. He's eager to make changes to improve his farm operation as soon as possible.