Minn. program rewards farmers who keep pollutants from waterways

Erosion on Whiskey Creek
This section of Whiskey Creek near Rothsay, Minn. has erosion problems. It's one area Jared Nordick plans to fix with help from state and federal conservation funding.
Dan Gunderson / MPR News

A pilot program to encourage water conservation practices on Minnesota farms reached a milestone this week.

A Red River Valley farming operation became the first to be certified under the Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program, which rewards farmers who go the extra mile to reduce pollution.

State Department of Agriculture officials visited the Nordick family farm about an hour south of Moorhead to determine if it is using accepted phosphorus and nitrogen management and conservation practices. The Nordicks also had to prove that they are properly using and disposing of pesticides, planting grassland buffers along public waterways - and that the farm's septic system meets state standards.

• Last year: Minn. farm water quality program launched

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Whiskey Creek runs through the Nordick farm, carrying water to the Red River. That's why it's one of four pilot sites for the water quality certification program. The other locations are Whitewater River in southeast Minnesota, Elm Creek in the southwest and Middle Sauk River in the central part of the state.

Restored creek
This section of Whiskey Creek crossing a field on the Nordick farm has been restored and protected with grass buffers. This is the kind of conservation practice state officials hope to encourage with the Minnesota Agriculture Water Quality Certification Program.
Dan Gunderson / MPR News

The Nordicks, who largely farm corn and soybeans, have restored several spots along the creek where fast-moving water dug deep gullies. They hauled in tons of rock and created grass-covered berms to reduce erosion.

But they still need to make improvements to culverts that move about 296,000 gallons a minute at full capacity. All that water not only erodes the creek, which is more like a ditch, but also spills out onto farm fields carrying soil and nutrients back to the stream.

"We've got great black dirt out there and we just hate to see that end up in our streams," Jared Nordick said. "So by doing this we're detouring the problem of overland flooding and reducing the erosion out in the field."

For Nordick, conservation isn't simply a matter of doing the right thing for the environment. He said managing water and fertilizer makes economic sense.

Once certified, farmers are exempt from new water quality regulations for 10 years, and they move to the top of the list for funding from existing conservation programs.

Grass buffers
Water caused serious erosion in this field until Jared Nordick filled the area with rock and planted grass buffers. Minnesota Department of Agriculture officials toured the site near Rothsay, Minn. on June 11, 2014.
Dan Gunderson / MPR News

The pilot program is funded by state and federal dollars. To ensure they follow through on the agreement, certified farmers will be audited once during the 10-year program.

Environmental groups have some concerns about the program, but Kris Sigford, water quality director for Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy said it's a good way to reward conservation-minded farmers.

"I think that to be certified would mean that an operation is doing a pretty darn good job for water quality," Sigford said.

Sigford, who serves on an advisory group for the agricultural water quality program, said it will help reduce sediment and phosphorus runoff from farm land. But she said it doesn't to enough to fix nitrate pollution and she doubts enough farmers will sign up.

"I don't think we're going to get anything like the widespread participation we would need to meet our major statewide goals that have already been established of a 20 percent nitrate reduction by 2020," Sigford said. "We're going the opposite direction."

Checking water
Farmer Jared Nordick and Minnesota Department of Agriculture official Peter Gillitzer check the water in an underground tile drainage system at a recently planted cornfield. Nordick carefully monitors the nutrients in the water that drains from the field.
Dan Gunderson / MPR News

Sigford also wants to see more robust oversight of the program. She said since data about participating farms will be private, program managers will also have the role of ensuring that farmers follow the rules.

State agriculture officials say they will adjust requirements during the pilot program.

Convincing local farmers to participate will be critical, said Don Bajumpaa, a district manager for the Wilkin County Soil and Water Conservation District. Bajumpaa will play a key role in that effort because he knows the local farmers and their land.

"I can specifically say, 'you know that northwest quarter of section 11 you got there in township XYZ, I noticed that you've got a little problem there,'" Bajumpaa said. "And when they know we know, there's the credibility."

On the recent tour of the Nordick farm, Bajumpaa told Assistant Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Matt Wohlman that he thinks he can sign up 25 percent of local farmers. But Bajumpaa he doubts that can happen in a three-year pilot project.

Wohlman said the Agriculture Department is committed to the effort.

"We had to pilot this to kind of get the acceptance and start working out the kinks," Wohlman said. "But we're looking at this as a long-term effort. You don't change water quality overnight."