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Published January 11, 2011, 11:28 AM

Troubled Waters documentary only scratches surface of water quality solutions

ST. PAUL — By now it seems everyone in Minnesota, has weighed in on “Troubled Waters,” the controversial documentary about agriculture and water quality that was funded in part by the University of Minnesota.

By: Gene Hugoson,

ST. PAUL — By now it seems everyone in Minnesota, has weighed in on “Troubled Waters,” the controversial documentary about agriculture and water quality that was funded in part by the University of Minnesota.

While many people have debated the accuracy and tone of the film itself, my biggest frustration is that the buzz around the film may reinforce a false message that Minnesota has to choose between modern farming and the environment.

This is not an either/or issue. Farmers often are the ones pushing for water quality solutions. Farmers work side by side with scientists to determine which farming practices result in the best conservation outcomes. “Troubled Waters” does offer a few examples of farmers working on solutions, but the documentary barely scratched the surface of what is being done to make sure we can feed people and still pass along a healthy environment to our children and grandchildren.

One example of this is Discovery Farms Minnesota, a farmer-led effort to gather field-scale information on water quality impacts from a variety of farming systems across Minnesota.

Real-world water quality

The mission of Discovery Farms is to gather water quality information under real-world conditions, providing practical, credible, site-specific information to help farmers and others make water-quality management decisions. One of the real strengths of this initiative is its insight that in order to protect surface water quality, you need a solid scientific understanding of the relationships between land management and water quality.

Another example of farmers taking a lead on conservation is the Root River Partnership. The Root River Partnership includes the Minnesota Agricultural Water Resources Coalition, the Nature Conservancy, Fillmore County, Monsanto, Soil and Water Conservation Districts and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

The Root River Partnership has two goals: to scientifically document the relationship between natural resources and specific agricultural production practices and to implement “precision conservation” to get the maximum conservation bang for the taxpayer buck.

Often likened to precision agriculture, precision conservation seeks to greatly increase the efficiency of our investments in conservation practices by demonstrating which practices implemented in which locations will deliver the greatest benefit.

Allies in ag

These are just two examples of the ways farmers proactively are working to protect soil and water.

My hope is that more policy makers and others working to protect the environment see farmers as allies instead of obstacles. Yes, there always are the bad actors in any industry, but most farmers get the importance of a healthy environment and we are eager to do our part.

Editor’s Note: Hugoson is commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

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