As pollution from row crops threatens the drinking supply of more and more towns in Minnesota, a handful of scientists and state lawmakers are looking at a new strain of wheat to protect community wells and keep drinking water safe.
They’d like farmers to plant the land surrounding wellheads with novel hybrids developed at the University of Minnesota that reduce nitrate pollution while giving farmers a new cash crop. These “cash cover crops” require less fertilizer than corn and soybeans, which now dominate Minnesota farm fields, and send down deep roots year-round, preventing soil erosion and sucking up the chemicals that are contaminating well water.
The pilot program, which would include dozens of communities and 118,000 acres, would also give the U a chance to test out some of the breakthrough new crops its scientists have been developing. Among them are Kernza, a perennial wheat, and pennycress, an oil seed that was bred to survive Minnesota winters and grow side by side with soybeans in the early spring.
The goal is to address nitrate contamination that now threatens drinking water in a growing number of communities. Since 1994, the Minnesota Department of Health has found 51 community wells drawing water with nitrate levels near or above federal safety standards.
Multiple cities, including Hastings, St. Peter and Perham, Minn., have had to install expensive water-treatment systems, costing the households they serve thousands of dollars.
The strength of the pilot program is that it could drastically reduce nitrate levels without asking farmers to idle any land, said Aaron Meyer, a hydrologist with Minnesota Rural Water Association.
“These are some extremely tough times for farmers,” Meyer said. “We’re looking for a win-win — for a way to work with farmers to find something that can fit in their regular business model.”
Farm fields aren’t the only source of nitrates, but as farming has become more dominated by intensive corn and soybean cultivation, vast areas have lost much of the alfalfa, barley and other cover crops that used to soak up carbon and keep the soil rooted during the wettest months of the year.
The Health Department has found that some 360,000 acres of soil were vulnerable to contaminating wells, primarily in southwestern Minnesota and the central sands region, where groundwater is already scarce and nitrates can more easily pass through the sandy earth. At the highest risk, the department found, were the dozens of communities that rely on wells that have been directly covered by row crops.
State Rep. Todd Lippert, DFL-Northfield, and Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, introduced bills this spring that would provide $8.5 million for an innovative program that would pay farmers to replace row crops at the wellheads. Much of the money would be used to offset the farmer’s cost of planting new crops, and the program would be voluntary. The state would likely enter into multiyear contracts with farmers to remove some of the financial risk of working with a new crop.
The proposals didn’t make it to either the House or Senate’s final budget plans, but Lippert is still hopeful that the project may find other funding. The Legislature has proposed giving the U up to $4.3 million to continue developing Kernza, pennycress and other crops as part of its Forever Green Initiative. It’s possible the U might use some of that money to essentially start a smaller version of the program at the most vulnerable wellheads, he said. In addition, the state Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR) is studying the concept.
“The work done on this can be truly transformational,” Lippert said.
The potential benefits vary from site to site, but replacing row crops directly above some of the most vulnerable wells could cut the amount of nitrates by 30% to 50%, Meyer said. “It’s so site-specific, it’s hard to say exactly what to expect,” Meyer said. “But having perennials on the landscape will fix a lot of our groundwater problems.”
The targeted areas would be what the state calls Drinking Water Supply Management Areas — essentially a ring around each well where it takes less than 10 years for a drop of rain to filter through to the groundwater and be drawn up.
Harsh Minnesota winters and unpredictable springs have always made it challenging for farmers to get cover crops into the ground. Scientists at the U have spent years breeding, developing and cloning crops that can survive, turn a profit and grow in harmony with corn and soybeans.
Kernza and pennycress in particular have caused the most excitement. Pennycress is a winter annual oil seed that has a high enough oil content to be used for biofuels. It would lie dormant through the winter, its roots preventing erosion and keeping fertilizer in place while soaking up carbon and nitrates. It would grow quickly enough in the early spring that it could be harvested in the same fields that are growing soybeans, giving farmers an extra harvest each year.
As a perennial wheat grass, Kernza doesn’t need to be replanted every year like most commercial grains. With roots in the ground year-round, it would deliver the same water-cleansing and carbon sequestration benefits as pennycress, scientists say.
And as a grain, Kernza could be attractive to major food companies such as General Mills, which is helping fund some of the research and eyeing it for use in cereals. Not that progress is easy: The 2018 harvest from modest plantings was much lower than expected, causing General Mills to scale back the planned rollout of an organic cereal that would be made with Kernza.
Both crops have the potential to accomplish two main goals of the U’s Forever Green Initiative: a higher income for farmers and cleaner water and soil for towns, said Professor Nick Jordan. And both are now ready for commercialization, he said.
The trick is scaling up the market for them because food companies and suppliers need large, consistent production. “And that involves investment,” Jordan said. “The supply chain can’t deal with a farm here and a farm there. It has to be cluster.”
Farmers haven’t had many chances yet to weigh in on the proposed wellhead program. But Stuart Lourey, government relations director for the Minnesota Farmers Union, praised the U’s efforts to work with farmers on getting Forever Green crops in the ground.
“We know these crops have the potential to be revolutionary, but it’s really exciting see how they can be integrated in conventional agriculture — with corn and soybeans,” Lourey said.
Other states have also been exploring the strategy. Iowa has started offering discounts on crop insurance premiums for farmers that help protect soil health. Maryland has a cost-sharing program that offers farmers up to $75 per acre to plant cover crops in an attempt to clean up Chesapeake Bay.
Officials at BWSR have been studying the incentive program here, and believe it could work better than efforts to buy up easements and take farmers’ land out of production, especially where land values are high.
“In many of these areas, it’s almost impossible to grow conventional row crops and still protect groundwater,” said Suzanne Rhees, BWSR conservation projects coordinator. “So we need to look at other crops and other practices to find this middle ground.”