by Anne Queenan
Along the Yellow Medicine River in the Minnesota River Watershed, near Clarkfield, a farmer collaborates with water quality and habitat experts on a plan to effectively drain for soil conservation and crop yields while improving the water quality of the natural waterway.
Doug Albin, a corn and soybeans farmer since 1976, has been managing his father-in-law’s farm near the river where his wife Lois grew up skating and ice fishing . Here, the relationship to water throughout the years has been a dance between the natural geologic hydrology of the Yellow Medicine and the man-made measures to enhance the adjacent land for row crop production. This land is now slated to be a demonstration site modeling what can be done by a farmer who voluntarily seeks to conserve the amount and the quality of water leaving the farm before it enters the nearby waterway.
Currently, the descending river continues to dig its channel further into the terrain. As in the past with frequent rain events, it occasionally floods the land that borders it. Its banks are eroding and in addition, sediment and agricultural run-off are entering the river. Measures put in years ago by Albin’s father-in-law, including conservation installations of a dike, some CRP land, and an older drainage method of open surface tiling, are not sufficiently protecting the farmland nor contributing to enhanced water quality for the Yellow Medicine River. The surface tile intake draws in water too fast, swirls up the sediment with its vacuum-sucking like power and contributes dirt to the river.
As Albin seeks to protect soil and improve productivity, he is reaching out for expert advice to come up with the ideal plan … one that leaves a legacy allowing his children and future generations to live on the land and connect respectfully to the watershed.
As a result, state of the art technology will be used to put conservation measures into every step of his plan.
At the heart of this story is the collaboration and trust coming into play between this farmer, his local soil and water experts, Minnesota’s Department of Agriculture, university research on state of the art conservation designs, NGOs, the USDA and natural resource agencies like the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) – all doing their best work together.
This comes on the heels of a series of water quality dialogues designed to build collaborative working relationships between farmers, environmentalists and citizens, both urban and rural, toward water quality, sponsored by InCommons of the Bush Foundation, and convened by Clean Up the River Environment (CURE).
It also comes at the end of the first public comment period for the implementation of new site specific water quality standards – legislation called the TMDL – for submittal to the EPA by the MPCA for the south metro Mississippi River in order to reduce the turbidity and sediment building up in Lake Pepin.
Recent press conferences in the Twin Cities have drawn a line between urban and rural factors contributing to the turbidity of the Minnesota River, accentuating old tensions and division.
In addition, Minnesota is currently part of a pilot study program with the Obama administration’s Department of Agriculture, headed by Secretary of Agriculture, Thomas Vilsack, and the Environmental Protection Agency’s Administrator, Lisa Jackson. This program, the Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program, seeks to provide incentives to encourage farmers to voluntarily build a combination of best management water quality practices on farmland in order to be certified as having met the gold standard for agricultural water quality measures.
“The idea,” explained Matt Wohlman, Assistant Commissioner of Minnesota’s Department of Agriculture (MDA), “is if a farmer attains and maintains this certification level, he or she will have done everything the state could expect them or ask them to do for ten years, including meeting TMDL standards.” The concept is based on success with farmers’ efforts to implement best practices in the western states with a similar program designed to find a solution for the endangered species of Spruce Grouse. On May 31st, the MDA announced the membership of its advisory committee to develop this program. Doug Albin is one of its members.
As Chairman of the Yellow Medicine chapter and former President of Minnesota’s Corn Growers’ Association, Albin has attended many water quality meetings in his day. Some of these meetings were driven by agency agendas. Others were designed to develop social relationships to collaborate together. “One day I was sitting down in a meeting with the Lake Pepin group and they were of the same opinion that I was. CURE’s Patrick Moore kind of brought it to a head when he said, ‘People are tired of meetings. They want to do something.’ “
Albin explains that recent Friendship Tours between concerned citizens downstream in Lake Pepin and the farming community in the Upper Minnesota River Valley resulted in conversation that “just kind of boiled down to ‘What can we do?’ ” “We’ve got groups, Lake Pepin, CURE, they are trying to effect change socially … Bring all of those things together, it becomes very effective,” Albin said.
“To move forward we need to come together,” says Moore, Executive Director of Clean Up the River Environment (CURE). “ Farmer and landowner leadership and ultimate decision making control is key. Once the desire is there to do something, we can all contribute what we know and do. Healthy relationships between people can be reflected in the water and on the land. In this way, the work becomes fun and inspiring rather than heel-dragging compliance with imposed mandates.”
“The average farmer would probably not go to a DNR or hydrologist and ask their advice on how to do something,” Albin explains, “ because they don’t trust government agencies.”
Albin does trust and respect local representatives in the agencies like the MPCA and DNR whom he describes as wanting to put better plans into place. He explains, “They too are tired of holding meetings and not doing anything. A lot of these people are coming out and saying, ‘OK, let’s do this.’ “
And in that spirit, initial consultations began on Albin’s farm approximately six months ago.
Early proposals to stabilize the situation came with staggering costs. So Albin went back to the drawing board and spoke to Mark Dittrich of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. Dittrich leveraged a more cost-effective plan and brought in “the University, the Dept of Ag, MPCA, DNR, Fish and Wildlife, NRCS, USDA … a number of agencies and private individuals, and involved the watershed board.”
“We looked at the site, and we thought, you know, there’s a lot of things we can do down here besides one thing,” said Albin.
“The excitement has been building. Every time we have a meeting somebody else has got a new idea.”
The Current Plan
Currently, Albin plans to co-host two large field and demonstration days with the involved agencies and soil and water organizations for farmers to see what can be done with a project of this scale on his farm, July 31st and August 1st.
According to Albin, this will be a 2 – 4 year project.
Plans include using pattern tiling with controlled flow instead of surface intake tiling, installing a bioreactor filter inbetween the subsurface tiles to buffer the nitrates before the water exits the tiling system, monitoring the levels of fertilizer used, and installing a saturated buffer to enhance the existing CRP buffer by increasing the water and nutrient uptake.
Pattern tiling will be used instead of open intakes to slow down the amount of water moving off the land. “What we’re trying to do is to eliminate the open intakes in the field because what happens is the water goes out so fast,” said Albin. You don’t need to drain water overnight. The crop can tolerate a little bit of water standing for a couple of days. The goal is to control the flow coming out of there so that you don’t inundate the river or the creek or the water system further on downstream.”
For the approaching field days, Albin has specific intentions.
“I’m hoping we get a bunch of farmers down there, knowing that they’re not going to be criticized or hampered or fed a bunch of rules and regulation, but who get to know and meet these people that are there to help them.” He explains, “If they’ve got a problem with a stream bank that’s eroding, they know they can go to the NRCS, or DNR, or whoever to gain the engineering or construction capability to get it done.”
Albin believes teamwork with experts is always better than attempting to fix it alone and more cost effective. “We know there’s a lot of mistakes that have been made along the river, along the creeks, where people have done it themselves,” he said.
Doug Albin’s field demonstration project funding will come from multiple programs and organizations to plan and implement the field days and the overall project itself. The Clean Water Fund will contribute significantly, as will the Minnesota Corn Growers, the Yellow Medicine Soil and Water Conservation District, USEPA-Section 319, USDA-NRCS, USDA-FSA, Board of Water and Soil Resources, the Pollution Control Agency, the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Agriculture. “The multiple sources of these grants and funding are an example of how many of these organizations can come together,” said Dittrich, “exploring new methodologies to examine, install and measure results of conservation drainage practices.” Leveraging federal and state funds with local resources are options available through the SWCD’s, the Watershed Districts, farmers, the drainage industry, contractors and their member organizations. Call your local NRCS, or SWCD office for more info.
However, the real benefit is for cleaner water. The conservation practices described will not produce a marginal benefit that meets the marginal costs. The greater impact will take place downstream.
Relevance for Farmers along the Minnesota River Watershed
Albin carefully delineates the unique nature of his particular problem, pointing out the need for a variety of solutions for other farmers downstream. “My problem here is not the only problem along the river. There’s other places. …What we’re trying to do is something that’s fairly cost effective. Here, we’re dealing with a 12-foot bank versus the Mankato or New Ulm area where they may be dealing with a sixty, eighty or one hundred-foot bank – very hard to control.”
The efforts are clearly worthwhile for Albin as he conveys a sense of pride. “This is something that we should all be looking at doing… the concern is because of the relationship with the people down in Lake Pepin, you know, how it effects them.”
This particular farmer is acutely aware of what he as an individual can do. “I can’t be responsible for my neighbor’s actions, but I can be responsible for mine,” said Albin.