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.’’

• Peterson, aided by his two sons, Nathaniel, 27, and Nicholas, 25, uses sophisticated planting, spraying and harvesting equipment, including a $350,000 combine with a $150,000 harvesting head and three tractors, all by John Deere, that he buys new and trades in every year. “I’ve rotated combines like that since the late 1970s,’’ he said. “It cuts my maintenance and overall equipment costs.’’ Each machine can drive itself down mile-long fields, varying its course, year after year, by no more than 3 inches. Similarly, sprayers are computer controlled so fertilizer, pesticides and other chemicals aren’t over-applied. “Everything we do on our combine and tractors is recorded on a computer chip, which we can bring into the house and use to print out color maps showing crop yield variations and other information. Using this, we can vary the amount of fertilizer, for example, that we apply to different parts of the field, depending on its natural fertility and other factors.’’

• Peterson farms sandy loam soil with an organic content of about 1 percent. The best, black “corn belt’’ soil might hold 5 percent organic content, which can provide a significant yield advantage. Peterson averages 140-160 bushels of corn per acre and 45-50 bushels per acre of soybeans. “In the best soils, they’ll get to 200 bushels of corn,’’ he said.

• “I pay attention to conservation when I farm,’’ Peterson said. “It’s not my determining factor. But one of my life goals is not to hurt the soils or the groundwater. I’m constantly asking, ‘How can we get more production out of the land and not hurt the land or water?’ The timely placement, and the depth of placement, of fertilizer is one way. I see these guys putting nitrogen on their fields in the fall and I don’t understand it. Apply it at the right time and it won’t wash away and be in the Gulf of Mexico when you need it.’’

• Peterson has never enrolled an acre in the Conservation Reserve Program because his land is too productive. Instead, by practicing no-till planting, crop spacing and rotation, and by “spoon-feeding’’ fertilizer and other chemicals, his conservation efforts focus on minimizing runoff and saving soil while, he says, not adversely affecting ground and surface water. He proudly points to runoff data being collected on his and 16 other farms by the Minnesota Agricultural Water Resource Center showing his relatively minimal runoff being “the cleanest of all,’’ adding, “In big part, it’s thanks to no-till.’’

• Peterson also practices conservation by leaving a 32-acre woodlot on his property that is surrounded by crops. “It would be very easy to just cut that area and farm straight through the field, but to me that would be an absolute sin,’’ he said.

Upshot: Land and water used and affected by Peterson and his family are in good hands.

 

Editor’s note: Know of a farm Dennis Anderson can visit and write about, focusing on its conservation practices? Write danderson@startribune.com.





 

  • 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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