With Earth Day just behind us, we're reminded that, too often, we are told we need to choose between a healthy environment and a healthy economy. When it comes to agriculture and water quality, we shouldn't have to choose. It is vital to Minnesota's future that we have both.

For many years, farmers have been the primary stewards of our state's private lands. Over the past few decades, they have made great strides in enhancing conservation practices, implementing new tillage practices, using more precise fertilizer and pesticide application practices, installing grass waterways, and exploring other methods for water retention and drainage. Through projects such as Discovery Farms, a farmer-led effort to gather real-world data about farming practices and water quality, they are laying the foundation for even more progress.

These efforts are encouraging, yet most farmers would acknowledge that there is room for even more conservation on virtually every farm.

Now, thanks to a new state-federal partnership, Minnesota farmers have a new opportunity to voluntarily accelerate their efforts to protect water quality.

This opportunity is called the Minnesota Agriculture Water Quality Certification Program. We are excited about its potential. The program's goal is to enhance Minnesota's water quality by accelerating the voluntary adoption of on-farm conservation practices. We believe that by combining the conservation ethic of Minnesota's farmers with an innovative and collaborative policy approach, we will improve Minnesota's water quality and ensure a stronger future for our state.

The idea is that farmers volunteer to implement a set of scientifically developed conservation practices tailored to their land and their farming practices. For their efforts, they receive cost-share funding to help cover implementation costs focused on water-quality protection. Participating farmers also receive assurance that our regulatory agencies will not require them to implement additional water-quality measures during their period of certification because they are already meeting the conservation goals for their land.

The program will not exempt anyone from any existing regulations. Instead, it will give farmers greater certainty about what they are expected to do with regard to water-quality protection. Minnesota farms are typically family-run businesses, and many farmers are concerned that if they invest in a set of conservation practices in one year, they may have people telling them they need to implement a different set of costly practices a few years later.

For this program to succeed, it must have a positive impact on water, and it must make sense for farmers. That is why we will be working closely to get input from farmers themselves as well as from soil and land conservation experts, water advocates, and environmental leaders.

With public attention focusing on the relationship between agriculture and water quality, this program offers a unique opportunity for farmers, conservationists and government agencies to work together toward targeted water-quality protection goals we all share. By accelerating the implementation of on-farm conservation practices, we will enjoy cleaner lakes, rivers and streams. It's a win-win solution that's too rare in our public debate.

The potential payoff is simple, but huge. We all get better water quality, while farmers will have greater stability and certainty with regard to conservation goals and related costs. They also get recognition for the work they have done for water quality -- an important point for farm families who are making a major investment of time, money and energy to protect our land and water for future generations.

David J. Frederickson is commissioner of the Department of Agriculture. Paul Aasen is commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Don Baloun is the state conservationist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service.