Farmers focus on maximizing soil health; New partnership hosts free educational event in Cedar River Watershed

Published 6:52 am Tuesday, August 21, 2018

BLOOMING PRAIRIE – Farmers in the Cedar River Watershed gathered Friday and learned from local experts how maximizing soil health can economically benefit their operations while protecting water quality. The event was a free field day organized by a new public-private-nonprofit partnership.

The Cedar River Watershed Partnership organized the event for dozens of farmers in the watershed and surrounding region at the Krell farm near Blooming Prairie, the upper part of the watershed.

Aimed at increasing farmers’ knowledge of soil health practices, particularly tillage and cover crops, the field day focused on the costs and benefits of adopting different land-management practices that improve the soil, water and economic health of farms. Local agricultural retailer Central Farm Service (CFS) provided a field demonstration to showcase different tillage methods and the associated profitability, yield, and soil health.

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Keynote speakers included Bert Strayer, a cover crop expert with La Crosse Seed, who shared his deep experience of integrating cover crops into a profitable farm management strategy, and Steve Lawler, a soil scientist with Mower County Soil and Water Conservation District who demonstrated how healthy soil can help with water retention and mitigate intense rain events.

The partnership shared with farmers how to increase agricultural productivity and profit while also protecting and improving local water resources through a panel discussion moderated by Hormel Foods. Partners encouraged farmers in the watershed to contact and work with partners like CFS, the Mower SWCD, and Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN to pursue information, services and resources that help them adopt practices that are the most effective and practical for their operation.

A rainfall simulator demonstrates how healthy soils reduce runoff in rainfall events. Photo provided

“As farmers, we have to take the opportunity to get involved and learn more every day,” said Justin Krell, who farms in the watershed. “What I like about events like this is showing how different farming practices can coexist. You drive down the highway and you can see irrigators in fields that are also strip-tilled, you can see windmills turning and terraces, and you see a lot of growers side dressing corn now instead of putting all the nitrogen on up front. It’s important that we make ourselves aware of these practices.”

Members of the Cedar River Watershed Partnership include CFS, Hormel Foods, Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN, the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program, the Mower SWCD, and Environmental Initiative, a nonprofit that convenes and facilitates the Cedar River Watershed Partnership.

“The Cedar River Watershed Partnership has created opportunities for CFS to bring new ideas and offerings to our producers,” said Ashley Schmeling, a precision ag agronomist with CFS. “With this partnership we have developed a better understanding of how our producers can access resources and funding that will be beneficial to their operations. Without the partnership we would have missed out on some of these opportunities. We all have one goal in mind, which is leading our producers to success.”

Formed in 2017, the partnership is a first of its kind collaboration in Minnesota that aims to improve water quality and farmer profitability through the implementation of precision agricultural practices and conservation. Partnership members seek to address important water-resource challenges, such as flooding and sedimentation in the Cedar River Watershed in southern Minnesota.

One focus of the partnership is helping Cedar River Watershed farmers become certified through the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program (MAWQCP) at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. This voluntary program rewards farmers for implementing practices that help improve water quality by offering technical and financial assistance and regulatory certainty for a 10-year period.

Fifteen farmers in the Cedar River Watershed are certified by MAWQCP; five of them through the activities of the Cedar River Watershed Partnership. Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN, in conjunction with CFS, is the first Minnesota private sector business to assist farmers in becoming certified in MAWQCP. Together, Land O’Lakes and CFS help farmers become certified in a variety of ways, including providing education, advising growers, harnessing existing data-collection capabilities, and helping farmers identify cost-share opportunities.