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Published July 27, 2009, 12:00 AM

North Dakota farmers get help going green

Program seeks better environmental practices
DAZEY, N.D. – For all his 53 years, Kim Amann has lived on the family beef cattle ranch on the rolling hills above Baldhill Creek here.

By: Jon Knutson, INFORUM

DAZEY, N.D. – For all his 53 years, Kim Amann has lived on the family beef cattle ranch on the rolling hills above Baldhill Creek here.

For the past two years, he’s been part of a little-known program that studies how farms and ranches affect the environment.

What’s learned in the Discovery Farms program could shape future environmental regulations in North Dakota.

“I’m hoping this will find better ways of doing things. Not just for me, but for other guys (ranchers), too,” Amann said.

Discovery Farms producers work voluntarily with researchers and regulators to learn more about how the environment is impacted by various farming practices.

“The end result, hopefully, will be some innovative thought,” said Greg Sandness, a North Dakota Department of Health official involved with the program.

“We want to work with producers and come up with good ideas,” he said.

North Dakota and Wisconsin are the only states to have the program, although there are efforts to establish it in Minnesota and Arkansas.

The North Dakota project is monitoring water runoff at three locations: two are livestock operations, and the third involves tile-drained fields.

Special equipment has been installed at all three sites to measure water quality and quantity.

The three farms are expected to remain in the program for at least five years.

Discovery Farms stresses the importance of maintaining farm profitability while also minimizing environmental impacts, said Ron Wiederholt, a North Dakota State University nutrient management specialist who’s spearing the program in the state.

Farmers aren’t compensated for participating, nor are they penalized or punished if problems are found.

Program’s origins

North Dakota’s program operates much like the one in Wisconsin, which launched its program in 2001.

University and Extension Service officials in Wisconsin proposed the concept after exploring farm-based research efforts in the Netherlands.

Today, the program is governed by a number of Wisconsin farm organizations.

Eight Wisconsin farms are participating.

Dennis Frame, a University of Wisconsin Extension Service farm educator and director of the state’s Discovery Farms program, said farmers generally have a strong commitment to doing the right thing environmentally.

“People across the country sometimes tell me that farmers don’t care about the environment. The exact opposite is true,” he said.

When farmers participating in the program learn of a problem in their operation, they correct it immediately, he said.

Frame said he has mixed emotions about that.

As a scientist who would prefer to study the problem carefully, he’s disappointed.

As an extension service educator who works with farmers, he’s proud.

Westward expansion

Staff members of the North Dakota Department of Health heard about the Wisconsin program and thought it might be useful in North Dakota.

Sandness contacted Wiederholt, who worked in Wisconsin before coming to North Dakota.

Wiederholt, knowledgeable about the Wisconsin program, was enthusiastic about expanding it to the Peace Garden State.

Two volunteer farms were selected for the program in 2007.

The Amann ranch is one. Doyle and Patsy Johannes of Underwood have the other.

Testing equipment on the two farms measures water runoff from feedlots.

A third farm, the Kent and Sandy Bartholomay operation near Embden, was added last year.

Equipment installed there measures runoff from tile-drained fields.

Though tile drainage is rare in this area, a growing number of farmers are interested in it, Wiederholt said.

That makes it important to gather more data on runoff from tile-drained fields, he said.

The North Dakota project is a joint effort of the three participating farms, the state Health Department, the state Water Commission, North Dakota State University and the U.S. Geological Survey, which provides and operates monitoring equipment.

The project is funded with grant money from the Environmental Protection Agency.

The program is not soliciting applications from other farms, Wiederholt said.

Back at the ranch

Amann has been running the family ranch since he was 17.

Today, he and son Dusty, who’s also involved in the ranch, have about 260 cattle in their cow-calf operation.

The cows give birth each spring. The calves grow on their mothers’ milk and grass and typically are sold before their first birthday.

Working with cattle appeals to Kim Amann.

So does life in the country. Bustling cities – their crowds, buildings and traffic – are not for him.

But a few years ago he received news that threatened the ranch and life that mean so much to him.

Regulators worried that melt water from the ranch’s winter feeding area might be running down ravines into Baldhill Creek and then into Lake Ashtabula.

Amann didn’t think that was the case. Based on his years of observation, he thought the melt water sunk into the thawing ground before it reached the creek.

Still, he worried that he might need to install a $300,000 sewage lagoon for the runoff.

“That just wouldn’t be feasible,” he said of the price tag.

Then he learned of the Discovery Farms program, into which he was accepted.

Researchers have set up three monitoring stations on his ranch. Each is in a ravine in which runoff water from the feedlot flows.

Data collected by the stations might show a sewage lagoon isn’t needed.

Researchers also might use the data to come up with alternatives to a sewage lagoon.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Amann said.

“I just hope we can come up with some good ideas about how to do things better.”

Program expanding to Minnesota

The Discovery Farms program is coming to Minnesota.

If all goes well, the program should be up and running in the state by fall, said Warren Formo, executive director of the Minnesota Agriculture Water Resources Coalition, which is playing a key role in establishing the program.

The coalition, which consists of several farm groups in the state, seeks to inform and engage Minnesota agricultural producers in and about water quality and quantity issues.

The Minnesota program will be highly similar to what’s being done in Wisconsin and North Dakota, he said.

“It will be great to have the program operating in the band of the three states,” he said.

Two Minnesota farms currently are under consideration to participate.

Neither farm is in northwestern Minnesota, although it’s hoped the program eventually will expand to that part of the state, Formo said.

Organizers are not seeking other farms as potential participants in the program, he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Jonathan Knutson at (701) 241-5530