Steps taken to conserve soil, water

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 9, 2002

Water and soil conservation are major concerns for many farmers in Minnesota.

To make sure waterways remain clean and the topsoil remains on their fields, many farmers have taken advantage of the federal government's Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and have planted strips of grasses, called "filter strips" between fields and waterways.

Filter strips filter runoff or waste water from fields by trapping sediment, pesticides, animal waste and other pollutants and preventing them from going into streams, wetlands and lakes.

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The strips must be at least 33 feet wide and farmer Tom Butler, who lives near Hollandale, and has approximately 25 acres of farm land converted into filter strips, says "you want grass on the ditch because the fibrous root system holds soil. If you have giant ragweed or hemp, they don't hold the soil."

Bev Nordby, of the Mower Soil and Water Conservation District, says the strips are supposed to be planted with native grasses such as switch grass, and "they can also put in a mix of wildflowers, too, if they want. It puts a nice cover on there."

The CRP, Nordby explains, requires farmers to sign a 10- to 15-year contract in which the government pays them for converting some of their farm land into filter strips.

"It's a direct payment, similar to a rental payment. The amount of money you're paid is probably $100 to $150 an acre, depending on the quality of the land," Butler says.

In addition to promising to plant the perennial native grasses, Butler says "the farmer promises to maintain the broad-leaf weeds and keep them from growing, but after a few years, the perennial grasses take over" so the weeds aren't as much of a problem.

"It's very simple to do, but it does take a commitment on the farmer's part," he says. Though this can discourage many farmers from enrolling in the program, Butler feels it's worth the effort and the loss of potential farm land.

"If farmers can keep soil on the field and solids from going in the ditch, then we can prevent a lot of pollutants from going into the waterways," he says. He says he noticed from water quality studies of the Cedar River and its tributaries that "when it rained a lot the levels of solids and fecal coliform (particles of animal waste) increased dramatically. I think the fecal coliform is coming from the soil runoff."

Filter strips help prevent much of that runoff and while that helps keep the waterways clean, Nordby says it also improves the farmer's crop yields because the topsoil stays on the field.

Additionally, the heavy cover of native grasses in the filter strips "provides great habitat for birds and deer … Pheasants Forever really supports the program because it puts more pheasant habitat in the community."

Butler says he's been developing filter strips since the late '80s, when the government first offered to pay for the land. The program has continued to grow. Since November, 70 farmers in Mower County have started developing filter strips on their farms.

However, not every farmer in the county is in the program.

"Many farmers say 'gee, I hate to give up that land for 15 years.' Some can get great crops (from the land they give up)," Nordby says. "They only have so many acres available for crop production and their just trying to make a living."

"I'm of the opinion that large farming operations are less involved because it takes time. They look at springtime as more acres they can farm," Butler says.

The large farming operations are a relatively recent development in the area.

"Conservation was a natural part of farming until about the time I started, about 30 years ago. Farmers had smaller fields, a lot of which was hay and pasture growth and there were some crop fields. Today, they mostly grow intensive row crops of things like canning vegetables," Butler says. "The best fields can stand this, but in some, the soil is loosening and is part of soil erosion. It's not one thing that is the cause of soil erosion and the water pollution, it's a bunch of things that piggy-back and build to the problem."

This concern of soil erosion and clean water are Butler's reasons for joining and continuing his involvement with the CRP. "Water is always a unique and controversial issues, but clean water should not be a controversial issue," he says. "Society likes clean water and they should have it. To not do anything to ensure this will affect future generations very negatively."

If you're interested in developing filter strips, you can call the Mower Soil and Water Conservation District at 434-2603 or the Natural Resource Conservation Service in Freeborn County at (507) 373-7654.

Call Amanda L. Rohde at 434-2214 or e-mail her at