Anderson: Conservationists, farmers look to the future

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 4, 2012 - 5:30 PM

Innovations could help farmers, conservationists form new alliances that benefit the environment.

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A conservation drainage system was on display last week west of Granite Falls on a farm bordering the Yellow Medicine River. The system is designed to remove nitrate from farmland runoff before it enters streams.

Photo: Dennis Anderson, Star Tribune

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YELLOW MEDICINE COUNTY

Like many of today's successful farmers, Doug Albin hunts, fishes, is well-educated, well-informed, highly motivated ...

And has a conservation bent.

Last week, on a parcel of the 1,200 acres he farms in this western Minnesota county, a throng a few score strong gathered to see firsthand some of the latest technologies developed to remove nitrate from farmland runoff that Albin drains through subsurface tiles.

Attendees of a two-day "conservation drainage'' workshop also learned during a field trip to Albin's farm about ways to stabilize stream banks and reduce sloughing of those lands into rivers, which in Minnesota too often destroys fish and other aquatic habitat and impairs river navigation.

Like many Minnesota farmers, Albin knows well tiling's benefit to crop yields. Shedding surface water by tiling not only allows quicker access to fields for planting and harvest, it minimizes the chances crops will be flooded.

But widespread drain tiling can and often does harm the environment, sometimes creating downstream bounce, or rising water levels, during heavy rains or snowmelt. When this occurs, aquatic vegetation needed by wetland wildlife such as ducks can be destroyed, or prevented from growing altogether -- explaining, in part, the widespread degradation of Minnesota's remaining wetlands.

But the massive amount of nitrate and, secondarily, phosphate that drains from Midwest crop fields into waterways each year might pose the biggest environmental challenge to researchers and farmland conservation practitioners.

Stressed during last week's two-day gathering in Granite Falls, not far from Albin's farm, was that no magic bullet exists to solve all environmental problems that attend modern agriculture.

"We have to have a 'tool box' with different methods to address different problems," said Jeppe Kjaersgaard, an assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering at South Dakota State.

One major problem is that discharged farmland nitrate contributes to a large hypoxia, or dead, zone in the Gulf of Mexico at the mouth of the Mississippi River, where little or no aquatic life exists.

Albin hopes the two innovative nitrate reduction systems placed along an edge of one of his farm fields bordering the Yellow Medicine River will help cleanse water flowing from the field.

Both were displayed in mid-installation last week.

"This land, and the Yellow Medicine River, are where my father-in-law spent his life," Albin said. "He fished and hunted here, and trapped, along with farming. He spent hours and hours on the river. So I have an interest in keeping it clean."

One nitrate-cleansing method involves placement underground of a woodchip bioreactor system near where water drained from Albin's field flows into the Yellow Medicine River.

Before the water exits the field, it will be collected in a trench filled with wood chips, which in turn have microbes growing on them that eat nitrate, cleansing the water. Cost: As much as $13,000 to treat less than 25 acres.

Less expensively, a saturated buffer system developed at the National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment in Ames, Iowa, will be completed on Albin's farm.

This method takes advantage of existing streamside vegetative buffers -- which in Minnesota support pheasants and other game and nongame wildlife -- routing tile water into and beneath them, where nitrate is removed by the plants.

"This provides an added advantage to existing buffers,'' said Dan Jaynes, a soil scientist with the Ames laboratory. "Already buffers provide wildlife habitat and prevent stream bank erosion. If we saturate them, they can also remove nitrate."

The U.S. Agriculture Department is beginning to share the costs of some of these innovations, aiding Albin, for instance, who also received money from the state Legacy Act's Clean Water Fund.

Albin believes farmers and technical experts should target available funds very specifically.

"My wife and I enjoy a balance," he said. "We try to make a living farming, and at the same time mitigate any effects on the environment. But if I've got a problem on only 20 percent of my farm, I want to concentrate my efforts on that 20 percent, not all of it. We need to concentrate our resources. We need to be smarter."

Progress, he said, will be incremental.

"Sometimes agendas are set to create controversy, and divide urban and rural residents. Right now society is telling us to grow a lot of corn. We need to do that without harming the environment. Instead of winners and losers, we need to create winners all the way around."

Dennis Anderson danderson@startribune.com

  • related content

  • Runoff from farm fields, particularly those that have been tiled to accelerate the removal of water, dumps pollutants into tributaries of the Minnesota River that ultimately end up in the Gulf of Mexico. New filtration systems are designed to filter the pollutants before they leave the fields.

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