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Program rewarding farmers who protect water quality small, but growing

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Dave Lochen has made changes to his farming practices to protect the lake.
Dave Lochen of Kimball has made changes to his farming practices to protect the lake he enjoys from his home.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

At Dave Lochen's farm near Kimball, cows peer over a fence to see who the visitor is.

Just beyond the cow pen and down a slight hill is the shining water of Pearl Lake. It's a potentially risky place to raise beef cattle, and Lochen knows it.

"I know people always questioned us: 'How do you have cattle and stuff so close?'" he said. "Well, our kids and we swim in the lake too. I don't want to be swimming in anything that's going in there that shouldn't be."

Lochen is aware that fertilizer or manure could run off his farm and pollute the lake, so he's taken steps to keep that from happening. 

Dave Lochen  uses a slow-release fertilizer on his fields.
Lochen uses a slow-release fertilizer on his fields to lessen the impact on the lake.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

Lochen enrolled in a water quality certification program for farmers like him. An expert from the county soil and water conservation district came out and assessed Lochen's farm to see where there might be a risk of water pollution.

Lochen made some changes in how he rotates his crops and applies manure to his fields. He added buffer strips and grass waterways to keep polluted water from getting into the lake. 

Lochen says the changes are making a difference.

"Watch it during a heavy rain or something, you can see that there isn't silt and dirt coming down with it. It works," he said.

Minnesota's agriculture water-quality certification program was first launched as a pilot three years ago, then expanded statewide. It now covers about 235,000 acres — less than 1 percent of the state's 26 million acres of farmland. 

But state officials say it's growing. Matthew Wohlman, deputy state agriculture commissioner, called it "tremendous progress."

Wohlman said the changes made by the roughly 370 farmers in the program have reduced the amount of sediment and phosphorus in Minnesota lakes and rivers, plus saved millions of pounds of soil from eroding each year.

Dave Lochen covers up a machine that he will use to plant cover crops.
Lochen covers up a machine that he will soon use to plant cover crops on his fields to reduce soil erosion.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

"It's not about putting this land into an idle program," Wohlman said. "It's about figuring out a way that we can have a profitable, dynamic farm economy while also continuing to have better water quality in this state."

The program offers farmers some financial and technical help to make changes. Once they're certified, they are exempted from new water quality rules for 10 years. Wohlman said that regulatory certainty is important for farmers.

"What that means is it's an insurance policy against a potential future regulatory goal post that moves," he said.

Mark LeFebvre, nutrient management specialist with the Stearns County Soil and Water Conservation District, is in charge of recruiting farmers for the program and assessing their farms. Stearns County has 47 certified farms covering about 17,000 acres.

LeFebvre said he likes how the program gives him the chance to meet one-on-one with farmers and take a holistic approach to all of their farming practices, including how they fertilize, control weeds and till the soil. He said it's a thorough assessment that can take as long as 20 hours per farm.

"It's kind of the whole package, not just putting a band-aid on one gully, because it's everything that's contributing to the water body," LeFebvre said.

But some environmental groups say the voluntary program isn't doing enough to protect ground water quality.

The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy published a report in December 2015 criticizing the program for not addressing nitrate pollution caused by farm drainage systems. 

A berm helps act as a buffer to the water.
A berm leading up to a road that separates Dave Lochen's farmland from his house acts as a buffer to minimize the impact on the water.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

Betsy Lawton, a water quality associate with the center, said she's not aware of any changes in the program since the report.

"We certainly think that any reductions in agricultural pollution from a farm are good," Lawton said. "The main concern here is that farmers are certifiable, meaning that they would be exempt from future water quality requirements when in fact they are causing water quality pollution from nitrate pollution delivered via drain tile."

There's also a question about whether this voluntary program is reaching problem farmers or those already using good conservation practices, like Chuck Uphoff, the first Stearns County farmer to become certified.

Uphoff has farmed near New Munich his whole life. He and his wife bought the land from his parents more than three decades ago. 

Since then, his farming methods have changed substantially. These days, Uphoff doesn't till at all, but plants cover crops like oats, rye and clover that hold the soil in place and provide food for his cattle.

Uphoff knows the water that flows past his farm goes into the Sauk River and eventually into the Mississippi, which provides drinking water for St. Cloud and many other cities downstream.

"I care about my kids and my grandkids and everybody else's kids that are out there that have to drink the water," he said. "It's important to do what we can do to have success, to keep water quality not only where it is, but to get better."