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Political ruminations on Southeast Minnesota agriculture

Fri, Nov 14th, 2008
Posted in Commentary

As American families sit down at the supper table these next few weeks and chew over the collective political decisions we made in the voting booth this year, can we also take a moment to ruminate on agriculture?

It's a good time to realize that our elected officials at the county, state and federal level play a huge role in determining what we eat and agriculture's impact on the environment. No place is that more true than here in southeast Minnesota. For the past half-century our farm policies-policies that are put in place by our elected officials- have provided incentives for farmers to raise row crops like corn and soybeans. There's nothing wrong with those crops, but when grown to the exclusion of everything else, it is definitely too much of a good thing.

Here in southeast Minnesota, what was once a patchwork of numerous livestock farms is now a sea of corn and soybeans, with the occasional livestock operation sprouting up like an island in the distance.

According to statistics from the USDA and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, in 1987, corn was grown on 127,200 acres in Fillmore County and soybeans on 40,400 acres. Twenty years later, corn was grown on 181,000 acres and soybeans on 76,700 -- a 53 percent increase in row crops acreage! Looking at farms in Winona, Olmsted and Wabasha counties in a 2006 study of the Whitewater River watershed, the MDA showed that more than 80 percent of this fragile watershed was in row crops. And this study was done before the current expansion of row crops for biofuels.

By removing diversity from the landscape, we've produced an unprecedented amount of environmental problems. For example, a 2008 multi-county water quality study by the Southeast Minnesota Water Resources Board recently reported that the region experiences serious nitrate-nitrogen contamination of rural drinking water. 30 percent of the rural wells tested in Wabasha County, 25 percent of the wells in Fillmore County, and 22 percent of the wells in Winona County were above the federal and state safe drinking water standard (10 parts per million) for nitrate-nitrogen. Nitrate-nitrogen contamination is caused by many factors. But the fact is that as more of our pasture, hay ground and small grains have been replaced by nitrogen-hungry corn, more groundwater contamination has occurred.

We need to get some of that hay and pasture back on the landscape, but how? Equally notable is the USDA statistic that in 1987, Fillmore County had 463 dairy farms. By 2007, that number had dropped to 145, a 69 percent decrease. When livestock raised on diverse, family-sized farms leave a region, so does the reason for raising forages and other soil-friendly plants that those animals can make use of.

The truth is that we need a lot more farms out here in the countryside raising meat and milk. Let's not confuse more livestock farms, with more livestock on fewer farms. The latter model of agriculture can be as big of an environmental threat as monocrops of corn. We need to support current livestock producers that take good care of the land. We need more cattle spread across the landscape and a lot more cud-chewing critters snarfing down grass and hay as their principal diet.

A recent University of Minnesota study shows that a more diverse crop rotation of corn, soybeans, oats, alfalfa, and cover crops, with nutrients supplied from legumes and manure can actually improve water quality, and save moisture and nutrients from heading either downstream or into our underground aquifers. This crop rotation reduced water runoff by 41 percent and nitrate losses by as much as 62 percent.

Similarly, well-managed pasture and hay production provide tremendous water quality benefits by putting permanent year-round vegetation on the land. They help hold back record rains and absorb moisture like a sponge. A U of M study that's been ongoing since 1973 in southern Minnesota shows that nitrate runoff from fields planted to perennials like grass can be 30-50 times lower when compared to a corn-soybean row crop system.

Yet, for either a more diverse crop rotation or an increase in grass and hay acreage to occur, we'll also need policies supporting more livestock farms dispersed throughout the region. For it is cattle that have that wonderful ability to turn grass into protein in the form of milk and meat. In order for farmers to financially justify having land in pasture or forage, or even small grains, they need livestock that can make those plantings pay.

You may not know the sound of the cow's jaws ripping a full mouthful of mixed grasses from the pasture, a mouthful loaded with sun-drenched vitamins, minerals and the kind of protein only a ruminant can thrive on. But it is a wonderful sound worth ruminating on, and one worth grounding our future agricultural and environmental decisions in.

The next set of politicians stepping into office in January will have tremendous influence over southeast Minnesota's agricultural and conservation policy in years to come. Could they not explore the idea of property tax breaks for farmers with land in well-managed pasture or with a crop rotation that protects water quality and helps prevent flooding? What about a direct financial incentive for retiring farmers and absentee landowners to rent and sell farmland to young livestock producers?

Certainly, these and other public policy options should be examined. Ultimately, we need to remind our policy makers and decision makers that by supporting those that raise our food and care for the land, they are creating a future for our region that will long outlive the next commodity boom.

Doug Nopar is on the staff of the Land Stewardship Project in Lewiston.

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