One of Minnesota’s primary strategies to reduce agricultural water pollution is getting a corporate boost from Land O’Lakes Inc., which promised to put its shoulder behind the effort to enlist farmers.
On Wednesday Gov. Mark Dayton and Land O’Lakes officials announced what they called a “new public-private partnership” at the company’s headquarters in Arden Hills.
Dayton signed a memorandum of understanding with the company, which plans to include water quality protection practices, like erosion control, when its agronomists work with farmers.
“This is a partnership with farmers,” Dayton said. “We are not going to establish this by edict, but by establishing a water quality ethic.”
The Agriculture Water Certification Program provides funding and technical assistance to farmers to make changes on their land to reduce the nitrogen, phosphorus, soil and chemicals that run off into ditches, streams and lakes. After a pilot project, it was launched statewide in 2015 with $20 million in both state and federal funding.
Land O’Lakes, the third-largest agricultural cooperative in the nation, said it will work to expand farmer participation in the program through its consulting and sales network. The company operates 300 retail locations in the state affecting about 25,000 growers.
Chris Policinski, Land O’Lakes president and CEO, said company agronomists and consultants have advised farmers for years about how to optimize yields and also to be more precise with chemical use.
New technology offers lasers to map the topography of farm fields, he said, allowing farmers to better identify the most likely spots for erosion, how to minimize runoff and where to protect nearby waterways by planting buffer strips and making other changes.
“We touch a lot of farmers, they trust us, and they’re used to using technology,” he said. “We’re now taking the same suite of ... tools and applying them to water quality.”
Farmers who make improvements receive a water quality certificate and a promise that they will not have to comply with any future water quality standards for 10 years. Farmers and other landowners are now exempt from complying with most state and federal water regulations.
So far, some 156 farms have been awarded certificates, and about 400 more are going through the process of making changes on their land.
The state Department of Agriculture said the changes implemented on those farms keep 9.6 million pounds of soil and 4,580 pounds of phosphorus out of rivers each year.
However, Kris Sigford, water quality specialist for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, says the strategies farmers are encouraged to use are not as good at holding back nitrogen, a major contaminant in both surface and groundwater. Nitrogen, which breaks down into nitrates, is water soluble, and flows through the drainage tile under most state agricultural land — about half the state’s land mass.
Sigford, who sits on the program’s advisory board, also said Land O’Lakes participation could give the program some badly needed support. Until now, she said, the number of acres involved has been relatively small — 84,000 acres of the state’s total of 22 million for row crop agriculture.
Some watersheds need as much as a 45 percent reduction in nutrient loss in order to clean up the water, she said. “You need an extensive reach to affect the landscape level change we need,” she said.