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Farm runoff -- 'If you won't swim in it, you can do better'

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Bruce Tiffany
"If you wouldn't be happy to swim in it, why would you be happy to send it to someone else?" Bruce Tiffany said on his farm near Redwood Falls.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Vogel

Bruce Tiffany, a corn and soybean farmer just southwest of town, stands on a line that separates a cultivated field from a patch of wildflowers and grass. Farmers in Minnesota are required to have a 50-foot buffer between row crops like corn and beans and public water bodies, but Tiffany has gone one better. His grass and wildflowers stretch for 1,000 feet.

"It's the right thing to do," says Tiffany, who farms 1,700 acres with his wife, Ann, an educator who grew up on a dairy farm near Litchfield. Next to the wildflowers, Tiffany has planted a low-maintenance, 2 plus-acre cornfield for wild turkeys, deer and pheasants to eat. "This is one of my favorite parts of the farm," he says. "It's just for wildlife. We don't harvest it. We haven't plowed this for a while." In the fall, he says, the beavers and the muskrats drag the corn stalks to the river.

Tiffany is fond of asking, "What is the best use for this land?" The question governs the way he manages his farm and has put him in the vanguard of growers experimenting with practices that slow and filter the water that falls on their farms. 

He uses a yield monitor — a sensor that measures harvested grain entering his combine — and GPS to determine whether a plot should be removed from production. Maybe it would be better as a patch of grass or woods. There are so many factors at play, he says. "Farming is not a factory setting. You're dealing with a living, breathing organism."

When high corn and soybean prices are driving farmers to pull land out of conservation reserve programs, there is heightened concern about how farming is affecting water quality in the state.

Redwood River
The Redwood River runs by Bruce and Ann Tiffany's farm on its way to the Minnesota River.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Vogel

A recent study by the U.S. Geological Survey found that levels of nitrate — a nutrient necessary to corn growth that depletes oxygen in water and contributes to the Gulf of Mexico dead zone — flowing down the Mississippi River from Minnesota and Wisconsin has increased dramatically over the last three decades.

And yet, many local farmers are employing conservation measures that have reduced sediment and other pollutants in runoff, either because of incentive programs or, as with Tiffany, because they think it's the right thing to do. Since runoff is a diffuse, so-called "nonpoint" pollution source and is hard to regulate, improving water coming from farms is largely a voluntary endeavor. And there are demonstration projects all over the state that farmers are watching to see how well they work. 

According to a 2010 U.S. Department of Agriculture report, model simulation results show that these measures make a difference. On average, the report estimates, they have reduced sediment loss from fields by 69 percent, nitrogen loss by 18 percent, phosphorus by 49 percent and surface water flow by 16 percent.

There is a cost to farmers who implement these practices. Tiffany, for example, figures he's got five acres reserved for wildlife he could plant with row crops if he wanted to, putting another several thousand dollars per year in his pocket. "It's not something I am going to complain about because that's part of the joy of living out here," he says. 

Right now, the drive is to better manage water, to keep as much as possible on the land and to filter the portion that heads for streams and rivers through underground tile lines and ditches. "If you step back, controlling water as it moves over the land is what we deal with on all of our landscapes," says University of Minnesota researcher Gary Sands who specializes in drainage issues. "That goes for cities and the rural landscape. Everyone is trying to deal with and manage water. We are in a water rich state."

"I can walk in exactly the same footsteps as my parents and grandparents. My sons and grandkids could, too. Would they be proud of me?"

"There are many new practices emerging to manage runoff," he adds. "Some of them have gotten good press and others not as much." He says there are a handful of sites across the state experimenting with controlled drainage, which involves attaching a gate-like structure to a tile system so a farmer can regulate the amount of water held in the soil. It's possible that water could even be reserved for dryer times. 

Another new method gaining traction is the woodchip bioreactor, whereby truckloads of woodchips are buried underground and runoff is funneled through them, thus removing nutrients like phosphorus and nitrate. A typical installation costs thousands of dollars and should last between 20 and 40 years. Several pilot bioreactors in the state — including one on a farm near Windom — will help determine their viability in Minnesota. "They are really effective and remove no land from production," says Sands. "If you can find the woodchips, they are fairly inexpensive to implement."

Even more novel is the two-stage ditch, being tried in just a couple of Minnesota locations, including on a farm near Austin. This sort of ditch includes a constructed "flood plain" where heavy water flows can slow and settle. The downside is they require a wider right-of-way and therefore can be expensive.

"We are going to see a lot of these practices implemented across the landscape," says Sands. "It comes down to putting the incentives in the right places." Widespread adoption of measures like these would make a big difference environmentally, he says. "We have over 20,000 miles of channelized streams and ditches in our state. If we can build ecological services into a good portion of those miles, it would be an incredible boon for water quality in the state." 

Tiffany, who describes his job as, "harvesting sunshine and putting it in a form humans can use," first rented a 20-acre piece of his farm when he was 11, in the late 1960s. He finally purchased the whole property in 1979. He built his family home on a hill overlooking a grove of trees, next to a giant oak he took great pains to preserve. Before making the driveway, he watched how the snow fell in order to determine the best path. Says Ann, "This farm has been in his blood a long time."

He's equally meticulous in managing how the water moves across his farm and winds up in the Redwood River, which is designated as "impaired" by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. His general standard is, "If you built a dam and captured the water that runs off your property, would you like to swim in it? If you wouldn't be happy to swim in it, why would you be happy to send it to someone else?"

If you wouldn't do the breast stroke in a pool of your runoff, he reasons, "You can do better." Tiffany employs all sorts of water control methods. "Blind intakes" use rocks to filter water entering tile lines. Raised berms or "terraces" pool runoff and keep it on the spot. He uses grid testing — where small land portions are sampled to determine how much fertilizer they need — to lessen application rates. He's considering installing a woodchip bioreactor and may try to recruit people living and working along a local drainage ditch to voluntarily improve their water control habits.

He takes care to note that he isn't unique. "I'm not doing anything unusual," he says. "Most farming operations are multi-generational," which he says creates a high level of accountability. "I can walk in exactly the same footsteps as my parents and grandparents. My sons and grandkids could, too. Would they be proud of me?"

Bruce and Ann Tiffany
Bruce and Ann Tiffany on their farm near Redwood Falls in southwestern Minnesota, where they have instituted a number of practices to slow the water that runs off their land toward the nearby Redwood River. They have installed zip lines that let them show visitors some of the woods and wetlands on their property
MPR Photo/Jennifer Vogel

Certainly farmers fall along a spectrum when it comes to water management. And one would be hard pressed to find another farmer in Minnesota with seven Costa-Rica-style zip lines mounted high among his trees in a patch of woods. Soaring from platform to platform wearing a harness and leather gloves, Tiffany says he uses the zip lines as a trust building exercise and educational tool.

Along the way, he describes the different types of trees on his property and offers history lessons. "We show visitors things that have changed in the last year, the last five years, the last 100 years," he says. To people who say they want to keep things the same, he retorts that nature is always changing. "When you look at it in the context of where we've been, you get a better feel for the importance of good stewardship and caring for your resources."

Flying next to a lush wetland abutting the Redwood River, the obvious question is, if he dammed his runoff, would he want to swim in it? "I can do better," Tiffany says.

Return to Ground Level: Cleaning Minnesota's Water »