SAINT PAUL, Minn. – Minnesota’s conservation program is growing rapidly. With 680 producers and almost 450,000 acres enrolled, the Ag Water Quality Certification Program is working to recognize growers and assist them with implementing conservations practices on their farm.
“It is a voluntary program where we recognize and certify growers for the great stewardship that they are performing every day on the land,” said Brad Redlin, manager of the Ag Water Quality Certification Program at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, during a recent phone interview. “The program does ultimately provide the growers with this 10-year certification.”
The 10-year certification is essentially a contract between the grower and the state.
For 10 years, the grower agrees to follow and maintain the conservation practices that are best suited for their individual fields. By following these conservation practices, the grower is deemed in compliance with any new regulations that may arise regarding water quality.
“The way certification is actually attained, if you're a grower, is to have a whole farm assessment,” said Redlin. “Look for points where there may be risks posed to water quality, maybe just the physical layout of the field, maybe elements of the rotation scenario or nutrient manager, whatever it might be.”
There also might not be any risks in a field, based on the grower’s current practices and the layout of the field. In that case, the assessment moves on to the next field.
The assessments are handled by local the local Soil Water Conservation Districts and are site specific.
“There is no mandatory menu of any kind,” he said. “It is just working with them really parcel by parcel on their operation to see if there are risks and then how we can help them mitigate them.”
The whole goal is to reduce risk – reduce the risk of nutrients, soil or chemicals entering various water ways.
One step growers can take toward reducing risk is reduced tillage or complete no-till programs.
“It is certainly an advantage in mitigating risks that can occur in an agricultural system,” he said. “It takes growers in a positive direction in terms of an assessment by removing several risks in terms of erosion, both water and wind.”
A no-till program provides other management benefits, as well as challenges. It may not be an option for every situation, but in most cases, some form of reduced tillage can be very beneficial.
“No-till adoption on one field may go swimmingly and no-till adoption in other fields may raise other challenges up with it,” he said. “So, we work with the growers to develop ways to manage those challenges that serve – of course the resource, but also the bottom line of the grower.”
Part of the reason the Ag Water Certification program has gone over so well with growers is because there is not a prescriptive set of practices that they must follow. While no-till is a great practice that is universally available to all growers, there are variations of no-till that may work better in certain situations and achieve the same conservation goals.
Strip till, for example, provides many of the same reduced erosion benefits as complete no-till, while still allowing the grower to incorporate nutrients into the soil.
“I think that's really fingers in the same glove ultimately and are outstanding ways to really protect the resource, allow the grower to manage a crop the way they want or perhaps are a little more accustomed to, but in a way of maintaining their productivity and maintaining soil resources as well,” said Redlin.
The MDA estimates that since the ‘build out’ of the Ag Water Certification program in 2014, 48.1 million pounds of sediment has been prevented from entering Minnesota rivers. Approximately 122 million pounds of soil and 28,291 pounds of phosphorus has been kept in the fields.
The result is also reducing nitrogen loss by nearly 49 percent.
For growers looking to get certified in the Ag Water Certification program, they should reach out to their county Soil Water Conservation District and set up an on-farm assessment. A county officer will work with the grower to review, develop and implement the right practices of conservation for each field.
“We really appreciate all those growers that do participate with us, we appreciate all the local folks that assist with us,” he said. “We have been working hard to extend and make that growth curve even steeper.”