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Program rewarding farmers who protect water quality small, but growing

By Kirsti Marohn

MPR.org/90.1 FM

KIMBALL — At Dave Lochen’s farm near Kimball, cows peer over a fence to see who the visitor is.

Just beyond the cow pen and down a slight hill is the shining water of Pearl Lake. It’s a potentially risky place to raise beef cattle, and Lochen knows it.

“I know people always questioned us: ‘How do you have cattle and stuff so close?’” he said. “Well, our kids and we swim in the lake too. I don’t want to be swimming in anything that’s going in there that shouldn’t be.”

Lochen is aware that fertilizer or manure could run off his farm and pollute the lake, so he’s taken steps to keep that from happening.

Lochen enrolled in a water quality certification program for farmers like him. An expert from the county soil and water conservation district came out and assessed Lochen’s farm to see where there might be a risk of water pollution.

Lochen made some changes in how he rotates his crops and applies manure to his fields. He added buffer strips and grass waterways to keep polluted water from getting into the lake.

Lochen says the changes are making a difference.

“Watch it during a heavy rain or something, you can see that there isn’t silt and dirt coming down with it. It works,” he said.

Minnesota’s agriculture water-quality certification program was first launched as a pilot three years ago, then expanded statewide. It now covers about 235,000 acres — less than 1 percent of the state’s 26 million acres of farmland.

But state officials say it’s growing. Matthew Wohlman, deputy state agriculture commissioner, called it “tremendous progress.”

Wohlman said the changes made by the roughly 370 farmers in the program have reduced the amount of sediment and phosphorus in Minnesota lakes and rivers, plus saved millions of pounds of soil from eroding each year.

“It’s not about putting this land into an idle program,” Wohlman said. “It’s about figuring out a way that we can have a profitable, dynamic farm economy while also continuing to have better water quality in this state.”

The program offers farmers some financial and technical help to make changes. Once they’re certified, they are exempted from new water quality rules for 10 years. Wohlman said that regulatory certainty is important for farmers.