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Published February 07, 2013, 12:44 PM

Minn. water quality program is weighed locally

Minnesota Assistant Agriculture Commissioner Matt Wohlman was in Worthington Feb. 4 to lead the first of six public input sessions on a proposed statewide certification program encouraging farmers to implement conservation practices on their land.

By: Julie Buntjer, Forum News Service

WORTHINGTON, Minn. — Minnesota Assistant Agriculture Commissioner Matt Wohlman was in Worthington Feb. 4 to lead the first of six public input sessions on a proposed statewide certification program encouraging farmers to implement conservation practices on their land.

Wohlman said the Minnesota Department of Agriculture wants to collect input from all areas of the state before the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program is launched. Plans are to select three watersheds in different areas of the state — northwest, central/southwest and southeast — to complete a three-year pilot project before the program would be available statewide.

In January 2012, Gov. Mark Dayton, along with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, signed a memorandum of understanding on this new approach to address water quality and production agriculture in Minnesota. Since then, a 15-member advisory committee — including eight individuals with agricultural interests — met multiple times to develop the vision for the program.

The program calls on producers to voluntarily adopt best management practices, also known as BMPs, in exchange for regulatory certainty for a period of 10 years. Wohlman said the regulatory certainty was requested by farmers.

“One of the things we all say is we’re doing a lot of conservation practices already,” he said. “We want to be recognized for it, and we recognize that we can all do more. We recognize that water quality is important to our state, but we want some certainty in our regulatory environment — that’s what I’ve been hearing around the state.”

Brad Redlin, certification program manager in the state ag department’s Pesticide and Fertilizer Management Division, said the program the state wants to create will “maintain farm profitability while enhancing water quality across the state.”

“We want to recognize farmers who are doing a good job, and provide certainty and assurance to the public that we’re enhancing water quality,” Redlin said. “We want to provide certainty to farmers that attain and maintain certification criteria.”

That certainty would be guaranteed by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Board of Water and Soil Resources, Minnesota Department of Agriculture and the Department of Natural Resources.

“If new rules come out in those 10 years, pay those no mind, you’ve already been certified,” said Redlin.

Upon recertification

New rules, however, would need to be addressed when farmers recertify.

Ron Obermoller, a rural Brewster farmer, asked what the value was in a 10-year certainty when farmers would need to make changes at the end of 10 years to keep up with new rules.

“Wouldn’t it be better to keep up with things along the way?” he asked.

Wohlman said farmers could choose to recertify every three years, which would push the 10-year bar out.

“As new science comes along and the BMPs become better, those new practices will come into the queue for producers to choose whether they want to adopt or not,” he explained.

As part of the public input meeting, the audience answered a series of questions, including one that gauged support for the program. That question showed 64 percent of respondents (there were 30 people in attendance, but not all of them responded to the questions) thought the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program was worthwhile; but a follow-up question showed only 44 percent of respondents thought their landlords would support the program.

Attendees also thought there was little to no possibility that ag buyers and processors would pay a premium to farmers using BMPs or conservation practices; or that consumers would be willing to pay more for products if they knew the growers were recognized for protecting water quality.

Voluntary participation was the most attractive part of the program, attendees noted, while the perceived time or financial expense was seen as the largest barrier to producer participation.

Finally, if one of the three pilots was in this area, producers were asked how likely they would be to participate. Of those who responded, 48 percent said they were likely or very likely to participate, while 22 percent needed more information; and 31 percent said they were not likely or would not participate in the program.

Wohlman said letters will be sent out to watershed districts statewide this week, asking them to consider participation in the pilot program. Once the watershed districts have been selected, parcels in the district would be scored based on the conservation practices already in place. Redlin said they hope to certify farms this summer.

Then, producers can choose to add more practices from the list of best management practice options available. That list can be found at local Natural Resources Conservation Service offices.

Monitoring progress

Rolf Mahlberg, a rural Worthington farmer, asked how progress would be monitored, to which Wohlman replied, “What we want to do is show that the voluntary approach works and producers installing BMPs have an impact on water quality. (We can) show the public, here’s the percentage of adoption and here’s the result we saw. It’s going to be really important to have a monitoring program and be able to show the results.

“If we have strong participation in those watersheds, we should see some improvement,” he added. “It gives us the ability in the agricultural world to have some data to back us up when we talk about water quality standards.”

Wohlman said that since the state’s Clean Water Act was passed more than 40 years ago, there’s been a “constant divide” between agriculture and the environment.

“We’re going to rise above that,” he said. “There’s a lot of farmers doing good work out there.”

Vilsack has said 95 percent of farmers in the United States have adopted at least one conservation practice on their farm.

“We need a way to share our story with those not involved in agriculture, and this is the way to do it,” he added.

For more information about the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program, visit www.mda.state.mn.us/awqcp.

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