I farm in Lindstrom, Minn., on the land where I grew up. I farm because I love being on the land and want to provide healthy food for my community and take part in the development of a healthy rural economy.
One thing has become clear to me in recent years: When it comes to water quality, farming is part of the problem — but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, given how much land in Minnesota is farmed, agriculture is going to have to be integral to the clean-water solution. When it comes to agriculture and the role it plays in clean water, the Minnesota Legislature currently has three opportunities to get it right: (1) support efforts to get more living plant cover on the land year-round; (2) make it possible for more, not fewer, farmers to get established on the land in our communities; and (3) resist efforts to weaken local democracy in our rural counties and townships.
First, how do we make our landscape more “water-friendly”? When we think about clean water and farming, we must move beyond talking about individual farmers and instead talk about our agricultural system. The predominant crop system here is corn and soybeans. This means the southern part of our state is green for only around 110 days of the year. For the other two-thirds of the year, the soil is exposed — no plants are protecting the soil surface and no living roots are creating structure underneath. Not only does this erode topsoil, a farmer’s resource, it also results in contaminated water.
If we want clean water, we need to change the farmscape. That’s going to mean systems that create continuous living cover on the land. Farmers need more cover crops that can be incorporated into a corn-soybean system in an economically viable manner. As it happens, the University of Minnesota’s Forever Green initiative is researching how crops like Kernza — a perennial wheat with roots that extend several feet into the soil — can be made an agronomically and economically viable part of corn-soybean rotations. A public investment for the public good must be made in this work. This program needs $5 million a year to realize its potential, and the Legislature has an opportunity to provide that this session.
Just as we need more cover on the land to get cleaner water, we need more farmers walking that land, managing it in an environmentally sustainable manner. There is a limit to how many acres one operator can steward properly. There are young people, like me, who want to farm in ways that produce healthy food and clean water. Our state must invest in young and beginning farmers if we truly want clean water. The Beginning Farmer Land Access Bill that’s now moving through the Legislature creates tax incentives for property owners who sell or rent land to beginning farmers. Such a tax break could help beginning stewardship farmers overcome one of the biggest barriers they face: access to land.
Finally, clean water is going to mean that rural residents and farmers have a say when factory farms with their multimillion-gallon manure lagoons are proposed in their communities. The truth is, family farmers and rural residents like me don’t want factory farms in our communities. And for good reason: The massive amounts of manure produced by these operations (enough to rival the sewage output of a small city in some cases) pose a major threat to our air, human health and, of course, water. That is why the largest factory farms must do environmental review before they are built. But a scheme is being pushed through the Legislature that would double the size factory farms can be before environmental review is required. That’s wrong and takes away neighbors’ right to have a say in the future of their community.
The Minnesota Legislature has an opportunity in the coming weeks to produce policy that, whether you live in Minneapolis or Milan, acknowledges a basic fact: Water is life.
Julie Arnold farms near Lindstrom and works as an organizer for the Land Stewardship Project.