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If every farmer in the state did as much a possible to reduce nitrogen losses — planting marginal land with grasses, running tainted water through wetlands or wood chips to remove nitrogen, planting cover crops between harvests, and applying fertilizer only in the spring — the state could reduce the pollution by 30 percent.
Some questioned whether that’s enough.
Deborah Swackhamer, co-director of the Minnesota Water Resources Center at the U, said the goal established by a federal task force to fix the Gulf of Mexico dead zone is a 45 percent reduction of nitrogen in the Mississippi watershed.
“If it’s proportional, Minnesota needs to reduce its load by 45 percent,” she said. And that doesn’t address the state’s drinking water problem, which she said is far more important.
A 30 percent reduction would cost $22 to $47 million per watershed per year.
Investing in health
Still, Stine and others said innovation may yet solve the problem. Four watersheds in Minnesota are participating in a $9.5 million project to find out if farmers can voluntarily adopt proven practices to protect water quality. Birr, of the corn growers association, said the group has helped fund two positions at the university to provide agricultural research and education for farmers.
That’s because corn and soybeans will be the crop of choice for most farmers as long as that’s what the markets dictate, Frederickson said.
“It’s all ag economics,” he said. “Farmers are doing the best they can. “
Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394