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MN2020 - Farmers Working to Address Complicated Water Quality Issues
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Farmers Working to Address Complicated Water Quality Issues

May 30, 2014 By Kevin Welter, Guest Commentary

The following commentary is a rebuttal to one of Minnesota 2020's pieces from the Macalester College op-ed series. The original piece, by Wouter Hammink, Runoff Elections: Cast Your Ballot for a Mightier Mississippi, ran on May 21.

I have spent the last two years working on behalf of Minnesota’s corn farmers as a student “Agvocate” with the Minnesota Corn Growers Association (MCGA). One of my Agvocate duties is to tell corn farming’s story and help develop a better understanding of farming on college campuses.

I read Wouter Hammink’s commentary on agricultural runoff on Minnesota 2020 the other day. Mr. Hammink said farmers will “wreak havoc” on the environment and the Mississippi River this spring by using “laboratory-made fertilizers and pesticides” that will end up in our waterways.

Unfortunately, this type of hyperbole is common when the topic of water quality and agriculture comes up. But as an Agvocate, it’s not my job to get angry over unfortunate rhetoric. It’s my job to help bring about more understanding as we all try to work toward a goal of improving water quality.

When I became an Agvocate, I knew MCGA was active in promoting corn farming and the many uses for corn, including ethanol fuel, livestock feed and consumer products. I did not fully realize the investment corn farmers, like my family, were making to improve water quality through university research and other nutrient management initiatives.

MCGA invests about $2 million annually in projects that address corn production and water quality. Examples include:

  • 18 completed or ongoing research projects conducted by institutions such as the University of Minnesota and USDA that focus on nitrogen management, application rate, timing, source and drainage.
  • Discovery Farms Minnesota, a farmer-led effort to gather real-world water quality information from different types of farming systems and landscapes throughout the state.
  • Supporting two positions at the University of Minnesota that focus on nutrient management and water quality.
  • You can learn more about corn farmers’ investments to address nitrogen and water quality issues in this MCGA publication.

It’s also important to emphasize that it’s corn farmers themselves, through Minnesota’s voluntary corn check-off, investing in these types of projects and initiatives. Minnesota’s corn check-off is a one cent assessment farmers pay at the first point of sale for every bushel of corn sold in Minnesota.

Based on Mr. Hammink’s commentary, he seems to think the solution to improving water quality is more government regulations on farmers. Government can definitely play a role, see the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program as an example, but it’s farmers themselves who will make the real difference.

No two farms in Minnesota are alike. The soil and surrounding environment on my family’s farm near Stewartville is likely vastly different from a farm in Central Minnesota. Uniform government regulations might work on one farm, but not on others.

Corn farmers recognize this, and aren’t waiting around for regulators to address the issue. They’re doing it themselves. After all, fertilizer doesn’t do a farmer any good if it ends up in the river instead of on the field.

Mr. Hammink, myself and Minnesota corn farmers have the same goal: We all want our lakes and rivers to remain healthy and clean. Yes, there are steps farmers can take to continue improving, but it’s not as simple as passing a new law or a new set of regulations.

Actions make a difference. Corn farmers have taken action and are working to make sure they do an even better job of keeping nutrients on their fields, not in our rivers.

As an Agvocate, I’m more than happy to help my fellow college students better understand what farmers are doing to address water quality.

Kevin Welter is an MCGA student "Agvocate" and attends the University of Minnesota. He grew up on a family farm near Stewartville, Minnesota.

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