Welcome to a conversation this noon on water quality and farming practices. This is part of MPR News’ Ground Level coverage of water issues.
Let’s get started. On the local level, many of Minnesota’s rivers and lakes are cleaner than they used to be. But when you look at the big picture, substantial issues remain and new ones are emerging.
Farming and how it’s practiced has increasingly entered that conversation, and that’s what we’re talking about here today. Nutrients from crop fertilizers and other sources result in a depletion of oxygen in waters flowing to the Gulf of Mexico, for example. At the same time, some farmers have taken steps to clean the water leaving their land – using buffers, tilling differently, trying new drainage systems, for example. Is that helping? Is it enough? There’s a lot of conversation going on around this issue.
Thanks to all for joining and giving this format a try. Here’s how this will work. We have two guests I’m about to introduce. I’ll post a question and ask them to respond, but others who have registered should feel free to enter comments and questions as well. My colleague Michael Olson will moderate those and post them as they fit into the conversation, which will be scrolling down your screen. Please, everybody, feel free to offer your thoughts and questions. The goal is an interesting back and forth that I hope will illuminate both differences and common ground.
Bruce Tiffany is a longtime corn and soybeans farmer near Redwood Falls in western Minnesota. He has instituted a number of practices to slow runoff and improve the quality of the water that leaves his land on its way toward the Minnesota River. He also thinks some criticism of farmers has been misdirected and counterproductive. I owe Bruce special thanks for taking a break today from harvesting soybeans to participate.
Kris Sigford is the water quality director for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, a 35-year-old non-profit organization based in St. Paul that advocates at the Legislature and in the courts to strengthen and enforce the state's environmental laws. She has long worked on the state's rivers and lakes to achieve the goals of being "swimmable" and "fishable" and her organization tends to argue that agricultural interests can be asked to take more responsibility.
Welcome to you both. Thanks for joining us.
Thanks for having us join
Here’s my first question to you both. No matter what you think about who bears ultimate responsibility for water quality or how to proceed on this issue, are farming practices changing quickly enough in Minnesota? In other words, is there agreement on some level that something more should be done to improve water quality?
Most people agree that more needs to be done. Many farmers, like Bruce, are doing excellent conservation work, others are slower to change.
I believe there is room for improvement of surface water quality in Minnesota. The issue is extremely complex so proceeding needs to be carefully calculated .
That pretty much leads to the heart of the issue. A main point of debate is the question of voluntary efforts vs instituting some kind of further requirements on farmers. Essentially this -- education and incentives vs somehow demanding a change in behavior.
Bruce, can enough farmers be convinced to do some of the things you’ve done to make a real difference?
One thing we really need to address is increasing nitrogen pollution, concurrent with increased tile drainage. Some progress has been made in reducing or stabilizing phosphorus runoff
And Kris, doesn’t a more regulatory approach risk imposing too much cost, both to farmers and consumers?
It depends on how much we value clean, healthy water. I believe we need to put a challenge out there to the voluntary only system. Show us that it can work
The short answer is yes. The momentum is gaining as discussions become more frequent and we have more data to base our decisions on.
We have been working for 20 years advocating for changes to farming practices to clean up the river. There has been progress -- most of it driven by the adpation of tillage practices to emerging chemicals for weed and pest control. We sense a shift in awareness but it is a nieghborhood by neighborhood kind of thing. When you think of how fast conservaqtion widespread practices were adapted in the 30's after the dust bowl with the establishment of the federal Soil Conservation Service it does seem slow -- but back then the movement was was driven by farmers themselves, working in conert with the reseracgers and the agencies. If feels like we are missing that cooperative spirit ,.
Bruce, it's interesting you say momentum is building. Say more about that. What tells you that's happening.
Minnesota is not actually strong on regulating farmers--but clearly, current efforts are not enough because we have many streams, lakes and rivers that are impacted by agriculture.
Welcome, Patrick. Patrick Moore is the head of Clean Up the River Environment, based in Montevideo.
It feels like the central point of discussion might be whether things are moving fast enough.
On the voluntary side, are there specific things that can be done to encourage more improved farming practices?
Practically every issue of every major farm magazine has articles about water quality and how people are doing their part to improve it. Articl;es like that are fairly new. the Discovery Farms in Minnesota are evidence that farmers are trying to find answers. the Uof M extension has stepped up their outreach programs. These are just a few examples
Kris, on the regulatory side, what's the best idea out there for how to proceed?
I think agricultural performance standards, similar to those in California and (closer to home) Wisconsin should be considered.
One of the policy changes the Freshwater Society would like to see would be a change in federal Farm Bill legislation to restore a mandate -- dropped in 1996 -- that participation in subsidized crop insurance be contingent on compliance with some fairly minimal conservation standards that are required for participants in other parts of the farm program.
Typically, they represent expectations of runoff levels, nutrient management practices, etc.
Hi Pat--yes, that would be a great start
Bruce, what do you think of the idea Pat raises -- tying strings of some sort to the crop subsidies?
I think its important to understand the distinction between the insurance program and many of the other subsidy programs - and with that a question: what are the biggest obstacles to making that connection between insurance for farmers and a benefit to the tax payer through improved practices?
Kris, you told us in our reporting that you liked the idea of putting responsibility in a geographic area on farming interests but then leaving it up to them how to fix it. How would that work?
I think there’s a problem of scale here. There are a lot of organizations and farmers out there that are doing good things for land and waters. Brian Devore wrote about some of them just last week. But the scale of the problem requires solutions of appropriate scope. And that would be at the landscape or watershed level.
But that’s a big part of the problem — there’s not a whole lot of that landscape thinking into traditional solutions. For the most part farm conservation programs and incentives take a piecemeal approach. They’re aimed at individual farms and individual farmers. And that’s certainly understandable since it is at the property level that changes on the land are going to occur. And the strategy seems eminently reasonable, too — the cumulative effects of good stewardship practiced by many individuals will produce the landscape effects that are needed. But it clearly isn’t working.
So I would think that an extremely important component in all this is the passage of policies that reward landowners for improving the ecological and hydrological health of not only their landscape, but the surrounding landscape of which their acres are a part. This requires both farmers and policy makers to think in landscape scale terms.
I would like to see agricultural interests prepare and implement a water quality restoration plan for an ag-impacted stream in Minnesota using voluntary measures. Show us it can be done!
I'd be interested in hearing from Bruce or Patrick Moore on whether it would work to get farmers in a given watershed to voluntarily come up with a plan to improve water quality.
On the voluntary side, demonstration practices, personal conversations and relationships will bring buy in to the concept of improving water quality. Americans as a whole have only recently started viewing our rivers as anything more than a place to get rid of stuff we don't want in our own back yard. Changing a culture is a process, but it can be done as we are witnessing now.
I wonder if Bruce is having connection issue...