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Measuring farm pollution: By the river or by the farm?

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Warren Formo
Warren Formo, head of the Minnesota Agricultural Water Resources Coalition, a farm organization effort, stands by water quality measuring equipment on a farm in Goodhue County.
MPR Photo/Judy Griesedieck

In a square white hut next to a lush cornfield, a web of hoses, wires, water samplers and meters is examining the runoff from Kim Gorans' farm.

As water pumps from the land through the automated monitoring station, detection equipment looks for phosphorus, nitrate, fecal coliform bacteria and a handful of other potentially troublesome agents. What it finds is contributing to the most controversial water quality debate in Minnesota, surrounding the role of farming in water pollution and the role of farmers in doing something about it.

Gorans is a co-owner of the 4,000-acre farm, one of the largest privately held turkey operations in the country. With 60 turkey barns, he says, "We raise about 45 million pounds of turkey per year."

For decades, the Gorans family has applied nutrient-rich turkey litter to their corn and soybean fields as fertilizer. Gorans, a second-generation farmer, says that whenever there was a fish kill in nearby Lake Wakanda, where the farm sends its runoff, locals pointed the finger at his operation. It wasn't lost on Gorans that the city of Willmar also sends stormwater runoff into the lake, which is listed as "impaired" by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Trevor Russell
Trevor Russell, watershed program director for Friends of the Mississippi River, thinks ag groups are dragging their feet when it comes to contributing to solutions for cleaning up rivers. Here, he stands in downtown St. Paul over the Mississippi River below its confluence with the Minnesota River.
MPR Photo/Judy Griesedieck

So Gorans called University of Minnesota soil and water researcher John Moncrief and asked him to set up the monitoring project, which led to the farm becoming part of an ag-backed program called Discovery Farms Minnesota. Says Moncrief, "I told him, 'This might go against you. There may be gobs coming off the land.' But he wanted the data to know."

The Gorans Brothers farm, which started its monitoring effort in 2005, represents a microcosm of a debate taking place between environmentalists and the agricultural community. 

In some ways that debate resembles many that have come before it - framed as a struggle between polluters and water quality advocates. But, as the meters and samplers on Gorans' farm attest, this battle is different. Rather than trying to establish who is or isn't following a set of well-established environmental rules, the present tussle aims to establish what exactly those rules should look like.

THIS TIME THE DISPUTE CALLS FOR PERSUASION

Under the federal Clean Water Act, excess fertilizer and sediment in runoff are considered nonpoint pollution sources, meaning they are largely unregulated. That's in part out of practicality. Keeping track of the runoff from each and every farm in the state would be a daunting task. So, in order to affect widespread change — at least as things stand now — farmers must be persuaded. This has led to some innovative partnerships and education efforts across the state.

Measuring pollutants
Samplers and meters on Kim Gorans' farm near Willmar, Minn. measure various pollutants in the water that runs off the farm.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Vogel

Most studies suggest that farming bears substantial responsibility for some forms of water pollution. The exhaustive  Minnesota Water Sustainability Framework, commissioned by the Legislature and released earlier this year by University of Minnesota researcher Deborah Swackhamer, attributes a third of all phosphorus and three-quarters of all nitrates in Minnesota waters to agricultural practices. Both nutrients help create the Gulf of Mexico's dead zone.

Conversely, farmers argue that each farm is unique and affects water quality differently, thus more research is needed. "Agriculture is getting a bum rap," says Gorans. "When 90 percent of people believe one thing, it becomes a fact."

Kim Gorans
Kim Gorans farms near Willmar and was eager to have the runoff from his land analyzed by researchers.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Vogel

Enter the Minnesota Agricultural Water Resources Coalition, formed in 2008 by the state's major farm organizations. Headed by Warren Formo, the group aims to add new data to the existing body of science, some collected on a hyper-local basis through its Discovery Farms program. So far, the MAWRC has six Discovery Farms around the state — some monitored by the University of Minnesota, some monitored by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture — but Formo would like to have a dozen, all "typical farms for their areas," each evaluated for six to eight years.

"I think we need to do more assessment," says Formo. "Look at the recent research and how fast it's changing our perceptions about things like sediment," he says. "Ten years ago, most researchers were positive that more than 80 percent of sediment was coming from farmers. Farmers even believed it." 

Now, says Formo, "If you look at the entire Minnesota River basin, the PCA is coming to the result that about one third is coming from farms." The MAWRC hosted a sediment seminar in Mankato in June that featured a controversial University of Minnesota soil scientist, Satish Gupta, and made this very point.

ENVIRONMENTALISTS SAY THE DATA ALREADY EXISTS

Arguments like this exasperate some regulators and environmentalists, who counter that while it's true farmers have done a better job at controlling sediment through methods like rock filters on drainage inlets, the sheer volume of water rushing through miles and miles of underground drainage tiles into rivers during big rains erodes the banks and contributes to sediment levels in a different way.

"Agriculture is getting a bum rap."

"It is frustrating," says the MPCA's Larry Gunderson, who presented at the Mankato conference, arguing at the podium that, "Nobody benefits it if becomes our science versus your science." On the other hand, he says, "I recognize that it's change that's needed and you can only do that through conversation and trust. I think farmers are like any other segment of the population. Some are early adopters and others are more hesitant and want more research and certainty. And there are some, as with other parts of the population, who are not going to change."

Most scientists say there's a bulk of evidence already, from river, lake and stream monitoring, historical comparisons and other methods. According to a 2010 U.S. Department of Agriculture report, 62 percent of cultivated cropland in the upper Mississippi River basin requires additional measures to sufficiently contain nitrogen or phosphorus. The report lists excessive nitrogen, which also can come from municipal sewage treatment plants, as the "most critical conservation concern in the region."

A new study from the U.S. Geological Survey adds that between 1980 and 2008, concentrations of nitrate flowing past a measuring station in Clinton, Iowa — water largely coming from Minnesota and Wisconsin — have increased by 76 percent.

Turkey barns
Kim Gorans' turkey barns.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Vogel

In other words, there is work to be done. The question is how.

Formo's view is that whatever changes are necessary should come from the grass roots, developed by farmers themselves out of what he calls a model of continual improvement. "We've been focusing on phosphorus in soil for thirty years," he says, noting measurable progress. "Farmers did that," he says. "That gives me hope we'll figure out nitrates as well. It's incredibly unfair to identify a problem and expect it to be solved overnight. I think there is recognition we should be working to reduce nitrate in tile water. The industry is willing to continue to do that research and get it done. That's what Discovery Farms is about."

Trevor Russell, Watershed Program Director for Friends of the Mississippi River, thinks the MAWRC is dragging its feet. "What I have seen so far is they are pretty deliberate about wanting to slow down the advance of any water quality improvement plan in the Minnesota River basin, out of fear of changes to the agricultural systems that would come from that." The strategy, according to Russell, is "to cast or manufacture doubt on the science of the problem, and say let's not act too hastily. The tobacco companies did this. They were very good at slowing down the inevitable. This is a pretty typical industry playbook move: 'We are going to obfuscate and create uncertainty among those who aren't paying very close attention.'"

INCENTIVES OR ENFORCEMENT?

The specter of regulation or a more stringent framework for accountability looms over the debate and various approaches have been suggested. Russell says first, current laws requiring buffer strips along public waterways should to be more uniformly enforced.  Beyond that, he suggests farmers could receive incentives targeted at problematic geographic areas or be required to employ conservation measures in return for existing farm subsidies.

"We've had forty years of voluntary cleanup goals and now the conversation has moved toward not necessarily regulation, but some accountability mechanism," Russell says. "It sounds like a false distinction, but it's not. There are substantial financial incentives in our agriculture system in the form of direct crop subsidies and farm programs. We have a substantial public investment and virtually no strings attached to that money. So you do your part for clean water," he says. "If not, there is an accountability mechanism, maybe a fine. We have $7 a bushel corn and $14 a bushel soybeans and you can't afford a buffer to stop runoff from running into the stream?"

He adds, "Look at any major polluting enterprise and show me where voluntary actions have resulted in a dramatic reduction in pollution anywhere in the world," he says. "You can't because it hasn't happened."

John Moncrief
University of Minnesota researcher John Moncrief has collected data on a Discovery Farm near Willmar, analyzing the runoff from the farm to the Minnesota River drainage.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Vogel

The Swackhamer report to the Legislature suggests establishing  "agricultural management areas," whereby farmers in particular regions of the state — perhaps divided up by watershed — would be responsible for reducing pollution levels as a group. It would be up to the farmers to figure out how. The proposal suggests matching funds for conservation measures.

Formo favors incentives because they keep solutions in the hands of farmers and preclude a more one-size-fits-all regulatory approach. He likes the idea of agricultural management areas, though he'd prefer those areas be as small as possible, even as small as a single farm. 

"We're trying to find the middle ground," Formo says. "Yes, things need to be done. But I don't see a disaster. The more I study, the more I see that it's little things that need to be done." Despite their differences, Russell and Formo do share the view that conservation efforts should be targeted to where they will have the most impact. "He wants to fine tune things on the level of individual farms," says Russell. "I wholeheartedly support that. He's fond of saying that every farm is different. That's true. If we need to figure out how to make conservation drainage work on different farms and landscapes, sweet. Help us figure that out. But if the goal is to prove that farmers are not the source of sediment, say, then you are not helping the conversation."

"Nobody benefits it if becomes our science versus your science."

Back on Kim Gorans' Discovery Farm, the U of M's Moncrief has drawn some conclusions about field runoff and how it compares to stormwater flowing from the city of Willmar, which he is also monitoring. By his estimate, the city is putting more sediment, phosphorus and other pollutants per acre into Lake Wakanda than is Gorans. The only exception is nitrate, which is six times higher for the farm.

Curious about Moncrief's findings, MPCA stormwater specialist Bruce Wilson, who has evaluated cities all over the state, including Willmar, says he's asked multiple times for the underlying research, to no avail. "The area over there is very hydrologically complicated," he says. "It's the most complicated area I've seen in my 32 years of working for the state." Wilson thinks "the summary numbers look quite high for the urban. But until I see the numbers and kick the tires and make sense of it, that's about all I can say." (Moncrief says he intends to provide more information, but hasn't gotten to it.)

Meanwhile, Gorans, who received hate mail from other farmers when he started the monitoring regime, feels vindicated. His farm isn't entirely exonerated, but nor, he says, is the problem exactly what people thought it was. "Fecal coliform levels are higher from the city," he says. "They believed it was nothing, but it was far from nothing."

"I get less hate mail now," he adds.

To address nitrate levels, last fall Gorans installed a woodchip bioreactor, a 350-foot long underground trench filled with wood chips that filter nutrients from his runoff. It's one of the first in the state and cost $14,000, half paid by Gorans and half by the MAWRC. Soon, another runoff flow will be diverted through a wetland before finding its way into Lake Wakanda.

To Formo, this is an example of the continued improvements model working. "This is the only place in Minnesota where a bioreactor and a wetland are being compared," he says. "It's important to note that the farmer seeing the data made a decision. My message to non-farmers is before you start criticizing them, step back and look at where they started and where they are going. They want to protect their businesses and natural resources if the solutions are founded in good data."

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