Anderson: Raising crops and conservation awareness

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 1, 2013 - 12:52 AM

A farming family takes up the challenge of working the soil without harming the land and water, moving onto the side of conservationists.

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John Peterson and his family raise corn and soybeans on 1,600 acres near North Branch, Minn., where he has practiced no-till planting since the 1990s. Technology has radically changed the way he farms, he says, noting that he trades for a new $350,000 combine and three tractors each year to minimize maintenance and other costs.

Photo: Photos by Dennis Anderson • danderson@startribune.com,

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NEAR NORTH BRANCH, MINN.

 

Wednesday evening, rain threatened to fall here on the 1,400-acre corn and soybean farm owned by the John and Jewell Peterson family. But ultimately, no showers were received, leaving the Petersons — like farmers throughout much of Minnesota — still searching the skies for rain that hasn’t appeared for nearly two months.

The Petersons and their operation, Spring Creek Farms, were hosting a gathering of about 20 people sponsored by the Minnesota Soybean Research and Promotion Council.

A group called Discovery Farms Minnesota also had representatives on hand to explain how they are conducting research on the Peterson farm and on other farms throughout Minnesota to determine, in general, sediment and nutrient losses from runoff.

The Peterson farm was selected for the event, I was told, because of its conservation practices.

I would like to say my insatiable intellectual curiosity prompted me to attend. But in fact I attended in large part because my former colleague Ron Schara has been fronting for the soybean folks on his “Minnesota Bound” television program, and in other venues, and — to bare all — more than a few Minnesota conservationists have wondered why, money notwithstanding, he would succumb to helping out conservation’s “dark side’’ — namely farmers.

It’s farmers, after all, who are bailing out of the Conservation Reserve Program as if it were the plague, in the Dakotas as well as in Minnesota, in some instances putting under the plow lands that are highly erodible, that butt up against streams and rivers, or are otherwise best left in cover crops or wildlife habitat.

It’s also farmers who are contributing to ground- and surface-water pollution in Minnesota and to the “dead zone’’ in the Gulf of Mexico at the mouth of the Mississippi River.

And it’s Minnesota farmers — or at least their farm groups — that routinely fight conservation efforts at the Legislature, not least by opposing the Legacy Act. And nationally, farm groups have opposed linking participation in federal conservation programs to participation in the federal crop insurance program.

So it was that I showed up at the Peterson farm in part to see what the soybean people considered farmland “conservation,’’ and, more fundamentally, to see whether the whole thing was little more than a PR stunt.

It wasn’t. Here’s what I learned:

1) John Peterson is a smart, conscientious farmer whose conservation ethic is well developed and, not incidentally, closely intertwined with his profit motive. 2) Not all soybean (or corn) farmers are the same, nor do they farm the same types of soils, or near (or far from) the same types of rivers or lakes. Thus pollution, erosion or other threats that various farms might present to the environment or to fish and wildlife are variable. 3) Therefore, proper and ethical “conservation’’ practices will vary from farm to farm. 4) Paid spokesman or not, Schara didn’t pull any punches when he spoke to the group, saying, in sum, that there were conservation-minded farmers and others who weren’t.

Finally, I learned that to get an accurate assessment of what is actually happening, conservationwise, in farm country, I’ll need a broader view.

Therefore, I intend in coming months to check out other farms in other parts of the state to see how (or whether) they integrate conservation into their farming methods, i.e., whether, as John Peterson does, they manage (and monitor) their nutrient, sediment and water runoff in an attempt to minimize downstream siltation and pollution, and whether (as Peterson also does) they set aside land for wildlife and other non-cropping uses.

Meanwhile, below is a snapshot of Peterson and the way he farms.

• • •

• Peterson grew up near where he now lives. He started farming with 100 acres, and today owns about 700, with another 700 rented. He alternates his corn and soybeans annually in strips and practices no-till planting, which he says holds nutrients and moisture in the soil well and reduces runoff, while cutting input costs. “I got into no-till in the 1990s because people told me it wouldn’t work,’’ he said. “I like to learn, I like challenges. I believe it would work in any soil type.’’

  • related content

  • Farmer John Peterson of North Branch, Minn., is a member of Discovery Farms Minnesota, which hosted a community gathering at the Peterson farm Wednesday evening. Discovery Farms Minnesota is a farmer-funded effort to gather scientific data on ways farming affects water quality throughout the state.

  • Ron Schara, host of the “Minnesota Bound’’ TV show and a retired Star Tribune outdoors columnist, told a gathering that balancing farm and wildlife interests is important. A soybean farm group has contracted with Schara to highlight their conservation efforts.

  • Nathaniel “Sonny’’ Peterson on his family’s farm between North Branch and Taylors Falls. The Petersons practice no-till planting, and alternate their soybeans (near background) and corn to conserve soil nutrients and reduce water runoff.

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