Anderson: SE Minnesota farmer thirsts for safe water

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 30, 2013 - 7:24 AM

A push for clean water drives decision-making for a farmer/geologist in southeast Minnesota.

hide

Jeff Broberg of rural St. Charles, Minn., in the southeast part of the state, on his farm, with a map showing the region's geology and it's particular susceptibility to nitrate groundwater polllution.

Photo: Dennis Anderson, Dml -

CameraStar Tribune photo galleries

Cameraview larger

– A few weeks ago I wrote about the John Peterson family and their farm near North Branch. Corn and soybean producers, the Petersons farm 900 acres, and are concerned not only about profits but about sustainability of their soils, with a nod toward wildlife: Benefiting deer and birds, they maintain 38 acres of woods in the middle of their crop fields.

At the end of that column, I asked readers to suggest names of other farmers whose properties I could visit. My intent, primarily, is to highlight those who are conservation-minded, not only about fish and wildlife but about runoff from their lands, which in some instances can pollute streams, rivers and groundwater, while contributing to the “dead zone’’ in the Gulf of Mexico at the mouth of the Mississippi River.

I intend also, when fitting, to point out how farming can adversely affect water and land, and fish and wildlife, particularly as corn and soybean acres expand nearly exponentially across Minnesota.

In coming months, I’ll try to visit some of the many farms that were suggested to me.

Meanwhile, today I’m at the Jeff Broberg operation near St. Charles, in Winona County, in southeast Minnesota.

• • •

Spreading a map across the hood of his aging Toyota pickup, Broberg concedes he’s not a typical farmer.

He and his wife, Erica, own 160 acres bordering the south end of Whitewater State Park, with corn and soybeans covering about two-thirds of those acres in a given year.

But Broberg — like many landowners across the state — doesn’t plant and harvest crops. Instead he rents some of his acres to a farmer who does, and sets aside the balance of his land for wildlife.

“That’s one problem affecting our water down here,’’ Broberg said. “A lot of people rent out their land and don’t keep track of what their farmers do to it, particularly how much fertilizer they apply to their crops and when.’’

A licensed geologist with an office in Rochester, Broberg is both fascinated with, and concerned about, the southeast’s unique soil and rock underpinnings.

Known as the “Driftless Area,’’ the region of southeast Minnesota roughly east of Hwy. 52 never was covered by glaciers. Consequently, its powdery soils lay over limestone bedrock that sits, in places, relatively near the surface. The limestone itself, meanwhile, is quite porous, and in many places is marked by fissures that allow the quick disposition of surface water into aquifers.

A couple hundred years ago, when perennial plants covered most of the southeast, including Winona County, that didn’t present a problem.

Today it does, because most of the region’s tillable land is covered in corn and soybeans, and nitrogen-laden fertilizer — sometimes lots of it — is required to grow these crops at yields that ensure profits.

If the plants utilized all of the fertilizer’s nitrogen, fewer drinking wells would be polluted in the southeast with nitrate, which forms when nitrogen and water combine and which can adversely affect pregnant women and their young children.

But soil fertility can vary widely even within individual crop fields, meaning that applied nitrogen might be utilized in its entirety in some areas, while in others, excess nitrogen will leech fairly quickly into the soil and underground waterways, poisoning wells.

“That’s what happened to my well,’’ Broberg said. “We’ve had to install a reverse osmosis system to make sure my wife and I aren’t drinking water laced with 20 parts per million of nitrates, twice the safe level.’’

Because corn and soybeans in recent years have fetched near-record prices, competition is keen statewide for farmland, including in the southeast. Some landowners have even auctioned their rentable lands to the highest bidders, fetching rates of nearly $425 an acre.

“I charge my renter less, $168 an acre,’’ Broberg said. “But I require a lot more from him than other renters do from their farmers. He mows my CRP [Conservation Reserve Program] acres, for instance, and I require him to minimize the chance of overapplying fertilizer by splitting his applications and accurately predicting the amount he needs to prevent applying too much.’’

A stream fisherman — he’s president of the Minnesota Trout Association — Broberg also knows the region’s fragile cold-water fisheries are threatened by the presence of nitrate in southeast surface and subsurface waters, which often intermix.

• • •

In some ways, the region’s nitrate presence is a microcosm of the statewide conflict between agriculture and wildlife and fisheries.

As the region’s corn acres have increased (about 7,000 more acres were planted in corn in the southeast in 2011 vs. 2010), to satisfy domestic and export demands and supply the ethanol industry, CRP acres have been plowed up.

Among losers in the transition: fish, wildlife — ducks, pheasants and songbirds particularly — and the conservationists who value them.

Add to this, in the southeast, the contamination in some instances of water supplies for entire towns, and it would seem that additional land-use regulations would be warranted.

Not so.

Instead, the state Agriculture Department — which, like the Pollution Control Agency, the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Health, is well aware of water contamination in the southeast — will attempt to convince farmers through a series of initiatives to monitor their fertilizer, manure and other nitrogen applications more carefully.

“Our plan will be a voluntary approach to encourage best management practices using incentives wherever they can be found,’’ said Agriculture Department fertilizer field unit supervisor Ron Struss. “In those areas where best management practices still won’t do the job, we’ll recommend alternative tools, such as the planting of alfalfa and other crops with lower nitrogen demand.’’

But Paul Wotzka, a hydrologist who was fired in 2007 from the Pollution Control Agency after speaking out about the presence of the herbicide Atrazine in state waters, and who lives in Weaver, Minn., in the southeast, says the region’s geology simply isn’t compatible with intensive row cropping.

“Whether you’re a trout fisherman down here, or a hunter or a farmer — no one wants to see this happening,’’ Wotzka said. “But the truth is, what’s being attempted here can’t be done. We can’t manage for groundwater, for people, for wildlife, for fish and also for intensive row-crop agriculture, not in this geologic region. It’s just not possible.’’

Broberg sees some hope in the Agriculture Department’s plan to sample significantly more wells statewide, and where contamination is widespread, to ensure area farmers are using best practices.

“As I understand it, the department is saying that where they find widespread well contamination they would encourage best management practices at first, and then, as necessary, require them,” he said.

“But that could take 20 years.’’

If so, Wotzka said, the region could see significantly more municipal well contaminations, and additional contamination of private wells like Broberg’s.

“This is the same approach that’s been in effect for 20 years already,’’ Wotzka said. “Essentially, the state is saying they’ll look the other way until fish are belly-up in the streams or until people are sick before they’ll actually do anything.’’

 

Dennis Anderson • danderson@startribune.com

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions

Click here to send us your hunting or fishing photos – and to see what others are showing off from around the region.

ADVERTISEMENT

Denver 7:30 PM
Cincinnati
Buffalo 12/28/14 12:00 PM
New England
Carolina 12/28/14 12:00 PM
Atlanta
Cleveland 12/28/14 12:00 PM
Baltimore
Dallas 12/28/14 12:00 PM
Washington
Indianapolis 12/28/14 12:00 PM
Tennessee
Detroit 12/28/14 12:00 PM
Green Bay
Jacksonville 12/28/14 12:00 PM
Houston
San Diego 12/28/14 12:00 PM
Kansas City
NY Jets 12/28/14 12:00 PM
Miami
Chicago 12/28/14 12:00 PM
Minnesota
Philadelphia 12/28/14 12:00 PM
NY Giants
New Orleans 12/28/14 12:00 PM
Tampa Bay
Oakland 12/28/14 3:25 PM
Denver
Arizona 12/28/14 3:25 PM
San Francisco
St. Louis 12/28/14 3:25 PM
Seattle
Cincinnati 12/28/14 7:30 PM
Pittsburgh
Denver 6:00 PM
Charlotte
Portland 7:00 PM
Houston
Utah 7:00 PM
Memphis
Toronto 7:00 PM
Chicago
Atlanta 7:30 PM
Dallas
LA Clippers 7:30 PM
San Antonio
Sacramento 9:30 PM
Golden State
Ottawa 6:00 PM
Washington
Nashville 6:00 PM
Columbus
Pittsburgh 6:30 PM
Florida
Arizona 9:00 PM
Vancouver
San Jose 9:00 PM
Anaheim
Calgary 9:30 PM
Los Angeles
Ark-Little Rock 64 FINAL
Bradley 54
Brown 67 FINAL
Central Conn St 55
Stetson 59 FINAL
Florida State 63
Ill-Chicago 46 FINAL
Northwestern 63
Ohio 49 FINAL
George Washington 77
Southern Utah 61 FINAL
Ark-Pine Bluff 70
Elon 67 FINAL
Kennesaw St 65
Dartmouth 49 FINAL
Penn State 69
Green Bay 70 FINAL
UC Irvine 72
DePaul 58 2nd Half 3:51
Colorado 76
Lewis & Clark 39 2nd Half 6:04
Portland 67
SC State 30 2nd Half
Abilene Christian 23
Manhattan 22 1st Half 5:56
Fordham 21
Truett-McConnell 16 1st Half 7:10
Ga Southern 27
Citadel 22 1st Half 6:49
Michigan State 23
Miami-Ohio 14 1st Half 5:43
Ohio State 34
Gardner-Webb 22 1st Half 7:17
Purdue 29
Idaho 18 1st Half 7:57
Northern Ky 20
Fairfield 6:00 PM
Albany
North Dakota St 6:00 PM
Alcorn State
UT Martin 6:00 PM
Butler
SE Louisiana 6:00 PM
UCF
Oakland 6:00 PM
Clemson
Florida A&M 6:00 PM
East Carolina
Eastern Ky 6:00 PM
Fla Atlantic
IUPU-Ft Wayne 6:00 PM
Illinois State
Norfolk State 6:00 PM
James Madison
Binghamton 6:00 PM
Mount St Marys
Towson 6:00 PM
Navy
Long Island 6:00 PM
New Hampshire
Northern Ill 6:00 PM
Notre Dame
William & Mary 6:00 PM
Old Dominion
Liberty 6:00 PM
Princeton
Delaware 6:00 PM
Robert Morris
MD-Eastern Shore 6:00 PM
St Bonaventure
Colgate 6:00 PM
Syracuse
Kansas 6:00 PM
Temple
Mercer 6:00 PM
Tennessee
East Tenn St 6:00 PM
VA Commonwealth
Va Military 6:00 PM
Virginia Tech
Bucknell 6:00 PM
Wake Forest
Alabama A&M 6:00 PM
Western Mich
New Orleans 6:05 PM
Indiana
Columbia 6:30 PM
Connecticut
Long Beach State 6:30 PM
St Johns
Wofford 6:30 PM
West Virginia
Southern U 7:00 PM
Baylor
UAB 7:00 PM
Chattanooga
Char Southern 7:00 PM
Colorado State
North Florida 7:00 PM
Iowa
NC Central 7:00 PM
Jackson State
Rice 7:00 PM
Lamar
Central Mich 7:00 PM
McNeese State
Coppin State 7:00 PM
Michigan
Furman 7:00 PM
Minnesota
SE Missouri St 7:00 PM
Ole Miss
Weber State 7:00 PM
Oklahoma
Grambling St 7:00 PM
TCU
Loyola-Chicago 7:00 PM
Texas Tech
Incarnate Word 7:00 PM
Tulsa
Penn 7:00 PM
Vanderbilt
Chicago State 7:00 PM
SIU Edwardsville
Simpson 7:05 PM
Drake
Tenn Tech 7:05 PM
UMKC
Murray State 7:05 PM
Southern Ill
Oral Roberts 7:05 PM
Missouri State
Jacksonville St 8:00 PM
Air Force
Milwaukee 8:00 PM
Arkansas
Wisconsin 8:00 PM
California
Coll of Charleston 8:00 PM
LSU
North Dakota 8:00 PM
Marquette
Northern New Mexico 8:00 PM
New Mexico St
UC Santa Barbara 8:00 PM
Oregon
Miami-Florida 8:00 PM
Providence
Northeastern 8:00 PM
St Marys-CA
Kent State 8:00 PM
Texas-El Paso
UC Davis 8:00 PM
Northern Colorado
Lewis-Clark State 8:05 PM
Eastern Wash
Walla Walla 8:05 PM
Portland State
TX A&M-CC 9:00 PM
Cal State Fullerton
Marshall 9:00 PM
Nevada
Boise State 9:30 PM
Houston
UC Riverside 10:00 PM
San Diego St
Tulane 10:00 PM
Washington
Loyola Marymount 10:00 PM
Wichita State
Nebraska 12/23/14 12:00 AM
Hawaii
BYU 48 FINAL
Memphis 55
Marshall 12/23/14 5:00 PM
Northern Ill
Navy 12/23/14 8:30 PM
San Diego St
Central Mich 12/24/14 11:00 AM
Western Ky
Fresno State 12/24/14 7:00 PM
Rice
Illinois 12/26/14 12:00 PM
Louisiana Tech
Rutgers 12/26/14 3:30 PM
North Carolina
NC State 12/26/14 7:00 PM
UCF
Cincinnati 12/27/14 12:00 PM
Virginia Tech
Duke 12/27/14 1:10 PM
(15) Arizona State
Miami-Florida 12/27/14 3:00 PM
So Carolina
Boston College 12/27/14 3:30 PM
Penn State
(25) Nebraska 12/27/14 7:00 PM
(24) USC
Texas A&M 12/29/14 1:00 PM
West Virginia
Oklahoma 12/29/14 4:30 PM
(18) Clemson
Arkansas 12/29/14 8:00 PM
Texas
UMass Lowell 63 FINAL
Holy Cross 78
Temple 59 FINAL
Villanova 64
Georgia Southern 68 FINAL
Southern U 52
Xavier 60 FINAL
Kennesaw St 61
Eastern Michigan 52 FINAL
Michigan 81
Brescia 56 FINAL
Marshall 127
(21) West Virginia 54 FINAL
Ohio State 96
UMBC 87 FINAL
MD-Eastern Shore 78
Cornell 79 FINAL
Loyola-Maryland 61
St Bonaventure 70 FINAL
Georgetown 64
New Hampshire 63 FINAL
Northeastern 62
Eastern Washington 67 FINAL
Florida 56
Rice 63 FINAL
Texas Southern 69
Butler 72 FINAL
Illinois State 60
UC Davis 53 2nd Half 3:15
(16) Stanford 65
Washington St 73 2nd Half 5:49
Loyola Marymount 46
Sacramento St 65 2nd Half 11:21
San Jose St 68
SIU-Edwardsville 34 2nd Half
UMKC 18
Oakland 6:00 PM
IUPU-Ft Wayne
Belmont 6:00 PM
(14) Georgia
George Mason 6:00 PM
Longwood
Kansas 6:05 PM
Creighton
Abilene Christian 7:00 PM
Kansas State
UT Martin 7:00 PM
Missouri
Hampton 7:00 PM
DePaul
Florida State 7:00 PM
Tulane
Murray State 7:00 PM
Illinois
Fla Gulf Coast 7:05 PM
Arkansas State
BYU 8:00 PM
Utah State
Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

question of the day

Poll: Should the lake where the albino muskie was caught remain a mystery?

Weekly Question

ADVERTISEMENT

 
Close