The rain stopped just as 30 or so mostly amateur paddlers gathered in a parking lot here to canoe a stretch of the Pomme de Terre River, which flows for more than 100 miles past towns, farms, meadows and a cluster of University of Minnesota wind turbines before emptying into the Minnesota River.
The trip was arranged by Clean Up the River Environment (CURE), a group based in Montevideo that fosters conversations between traditionally at-odds groups like farmers and environmental advocates, in order to encourage practices that improve water quality. Part of the Pomme de Terre has been designated as "impaired" by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, due to high turbidity and excessive fecal coliform bacteria. On this day, the water had a brownish hue, but was clear enough to see weeds at the bottom in the shallower spots.
To be sure, this wasn't your average pleasure outing, but neither was it a harangue about the problems of the river and what must be done about them. Instead, the goal was to build familiarity and fondness for fellow canoeists and the Pomme de Terre itself. Though none of the invited farmers braved the weather, the group included students, professors, government officials, environmentalists, several Spanish-speaking families with ties to the local Riverview dairy, along with a Riverview human resources manager.
"Everyone is at the edge of his circle" and trying to find common ground, said CURE's executive director Patrick Moore, a longtime environmentalist and entrepreneur.
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The CURE approach is born of necessity. Generally, the federal Clean Water Act doesn't apply to diffuse pollution sources like runoff from individual yards and farms, so staving the flow from these sources requires volition on the part of polluters. In other words, they need to be convinced to do the right thing. This has led to new, creative education and persuasion efforts like CURE.
Last September, Moore teamed up with the ag-industry-funded Minnesota Agricultural Water Resources Coalition (MAWRC) and others to host a "Friendship Tour," in which water quality advocates from around Lake Pepin were bused to meet with farmers in the Northfield and Redwood Falls areas. The goal was to create a friendly arena in which the two camps could see how their actions affect one another and search for commonalities. The effort yielded a video and won a $25,000 prize from the Bush Foundation. (Disclosure: MPR News is a partner with the Bush Foundation in its InCommons initiative to find means of helping Minnesotans make connections and deal with challenges.)
Moore, who lives in Montevideo, believes in the power of shared goals. "We're focusing on cultural change rather than policy change," he says. "We try to organize around passion." CURE, founded in 1992, has a track record in the mode of a traditional environmental organization. The group fought Big Stone II, the coal-burning power plant once planned for near Ortonville. It rallied the troops to stop an effort to straighten part of the Lac qui Parle River. A former CURE board member, David Minge, who served as a U.S. Representative, championed the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, which pays farmers to take sensitive lands out of cultivation.
Yet, at a board meeting two years ago, says Moore, "We thought, we shouldn't just define ourselves by what we are against, but rather what we are for. There has always been a side to CURE that is about conversations. We are conveners and catalysts. We want to be a trusted mediator." According to Moore, the key is finding the "sweet spot" where self interest meets the greater good. He says his group is in a good position to do that. "We have always had farmers on our board. We understand rural culture in a way few other environmental nonprofits do."
If success is measured in discussions, the new approach is paying off. Besides the Pomme de Terre float, CURE has organized other river paddles, including one during this summer's Farmfest in Redwood County. It has led workshops for government regulators and scientists to show how the group's approach, built around engagement and inclusion, works. It's forging collaborative projects with the MAWRC.
"We need them to be our friends. If they think we are their worst enemy, that isn't how we'll come up with solutions."
"Guys like Patrick and John Hickman (who produced a documentary called "River Revival: Working Together to Save the Minnesota River"), in my mind they are two of the most interesting relationships I've begun in recent years," says Warren Formo, the MAWRC's executive director. "We cut to, 'What does this mean and what are we going to do about it?' while others are fighting. A year and a half ago, we said, 'We have more in common than many people would guess,' and we started having these discussions."
Formo says he and Moore were able to take a contentious discussion around a water quality improvement plan for the Pomme de Terre and foster a productive give and take. "We agreed to changes that made it more palatable to the farmers in the area," he says. "And farmers offered up, 'We can do this with our tiling systems and buffers.' The DNR was challenged to do some things. There is something concrete coming out of that."
Whether the idea of building relationships — as opposed to changing regulatory law or incentive programs — translates into widespread environmental change has yet to be seen. Moore is the first to acknowledge that the approach is in its fledgling stage. "Civic engagement around water issues takes time," he says. "Respect is earned and not freely given."
"Sometimes when you are involved in these things, you don't know the answer," he adds. "So you build the road by walking. You base it on, if you stay in the relationship and dialogue and find things to do together, like canoeing, something will emerge."
Some environmentalists are dubious that enough farmers will be convinced to change, especially given that economic self interest can run counter to environmental stewardship. Trevor Russell, Watershed Program Director for Friends of the Mississippi River, says, "I spent an hour with David Ward (of the Minnesota Corn Research & Promotion Council) after a recent conference. We don't agree on anything except that we like each other and the Twins. But that's cool, we can talk. But if the entities that are controlling the dialogue within the agricultural community aren't willing to acknowledge a problem, it's awfully hard to rely on them for the solution."
Even some working with CURE register doubts. Pomme de Terre paddler Kevin Wulf, the human resources person from Riverview dairy, has been a CURE board member since February. But he's not sure it's possible to exploit the intersection between self interest and the greater good, as Moore endeavors to do. "It's a difficult task," Wulf says. "You don't have to teach your kids to misbehave, but you do have to teach them to behave. You don't have to teach people to find the loophole, but you have to teach them to withstand that temptation and do what's right. Patrick is trying to train people to look at the bigger picture, to improve what we all share and have. He's teaching what it's not natural for us to do."
On the other hand, "Obviously I'm on the board," says Wulf, who describes himself as hopeful but not very optimistic. "I'm a large-scale conventional farmer of sorts. Now I'm making that connection. I guarantee more people around Morris know about CURE than they did before. I'm talking with farmers and getting a little ribbing, but that's OK." He cites as a positive step the fact that the Minnesota Corn Growers Association donated money to CURE for a canoe trailer. "Does it make people hug each other and go away? No. Do you think we've maximized the program so we're touching as many people as we can? No. Is there room for progress? Absolutely."
It's important to remember, says Moore, "I really believe these farmers we've gotten to know are some of the smartest people. They are self-reliant and inventive. If you hang with them, you say 'I want to be around you. Your life is together. Your values are together. You pull off an amazing thing.'"
His message for other environmentalists is, "We need these people. We need them to be our friends. If they think we are their worst enemy, that isn't how we'll come up with solutions. You don't create a future where people don't see themselves in that future."