STARBUCK, Minn. – Lake Minnewaska is a vacationer’s dream in central Minnesota. The scenery of Minnesota’s 13th largest lake helps people relax and let go of their troubles.
Housing developments surround most of the 8,050-acre lake that feeds into the Chippewa River Watershed.
In recent years, many groups and individuals have invested and worked on cleaning up the lake. That’s included cabin owners, as well as cities like Starbuck and Glenwood, Minn., and farmers who care for the farmland located some distance from the lake.
Paul Freeman has spent his whole life farming and looking at Lake Minnewaska, so naturally, clean water is very important to him.
“Moving forward, we each need to do our best at being transparent and working together,” he said, speaking of the important role everyone has to keep water clean.
He serves on the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program (MAWQCP) advisory committee. He’s also a certified producer in the program. This voluntary program allows farmers and landowners to implement conservation practices to protect water.
The program, started in 2014, has enrolled more than 1,000 farmers and landowners, is helping to protect more than 715,000 acres of land and the state’s water, according to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.
“I wasn’t the first one to get certified in Pope County,” he said. “Dorrich Dairy was one of the first to get certified. They are doing more of the consumer product, and they really saw the value of getting certified early.”
Paul wasn’t far behind.
The reason he likes this program so much is because it is voluntary, and it’s a chance to measure and report on the good things that farmers are doing for the environment.
“We’re already doing the good things out here without getting credit for it,” he said. “A lot of our buyers for soy products are looking for sustainability factors, and products that are friendly to the environment. We’ve got this program to use as a tool to show them we are making progress, doing a better job.”
A side benefit to this program is once a producer has completed their conservation practices, the producer has 10 years during which no changes will be mandated for additional conservation on those acres.
For the Freeman operation, there wasn’t much to change to get certified. Paul uses precision farming to efficiently use inputs.
He rarely works bean stubble in the fall. Any corn/soybean fields that receive tillage have good residue cover.
“There’s still a lot of cover from corn stalks on the fields I plant to soybeans the following year,” he said. “At times it’s too much cover, but that’s a gamble I’m willing to take.”
There are times when tillage is acceptable for certification. One field has a high-water table and heavy ground, and tillage is needed there to raise a good crop. A MAWQCP technician inspected the field, and with proper residue in place, the field qualified.
When Paul applied for the program, there was no charge. It was mainly an investment in time.
After his initial certification, Paul rented a field that had a 4-foot washout on a steep hill. He got that corrected with a scraper, but it needed four berms and tile from the berm holding soil in place to prevent further washing.
“I got financial assistance on that process,” he said. The project was worked on during the winter of 2019-20. “The Soil and Water Conservation District made up the plan and structures.”
He received some dollars with the MAWQCP for making the improvement. By doing the work himself on the rented farmland, Paul received a check that helped with cashflow during a time of low commodity prices.
“It was something that needed to be done, too,” he said. “When it is rented ground, it’s easier to do this when you have technical services and cost share.”
The biggest hurdle for the program is getting people into the Soil and Water Conservation District office to sign up.
“It’s a good program, but you have to go in the door or contact them and see if it fits your farm,” he said. “They are very accommodating.”
In August, Paul met with Minnesota Ag Commissioner Thom Peterson regarding drought conditions. Peterson attended the Pope County Corn and Soybean Annual Meeting. Paul asked Peterson to talk with Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack about an idea he has.
Paul would like to see farmers be able to grow cover crop seed on a portion of their CRP acres. Farmers wouldn’t be able to sell the seed, but it would be a way for farmers to harvest and use cover crop seed in their own operations for a small cost.
“Cover crops are good, but it’s hard to get in that cycle when you have to have another input you’re buying – when the money is already spent on inputs and you’re only getting half a crop,” he said. “This (planting and harvesting 20 percent cover crop seed raised on CRP) would add more food plots, because not all would be harvested,” he said.
A memorable event
It was last November when Mary Freeman, Paul’s mother, passed away. Her funeral was held on Aug. 7.
Mary loved to quilt for others.
Before she developed dementia, Mary had a special request for her funeral. She wanted anyone that was able to bring the quilt she had made for them to her service.
At her funeral, every pew in the church was covered with the quilts Mary had made. The warmth and joy of a mother’s love was very tangible at her funeral.
Seeing relatives and friends and remembering Mary’s life was good for the Freeman family on a warm and sunny day in August.
Blessed be Mary Freeman’s memory.