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Published June 25, 2010, 12:00 AM

Commentary - Farmers protect water quality

Driving around greater Minnesota the last few weeks, I’ve been struck by the natural beauty of our agricultural landscape.

By Gene Hugoson, commissioner of Minnesota Department of Agriculture,

St. Paul, MN

Driving around greater Minnesota the last few weeks, I’ve been struck by the natural beauty of our agricultural landscape. The bright green plants, the sparkling lakes and rivers, and (to a farmer’s eyes) the beautifully rich black soil all reinforce Minnesota’s well-deserved reputation as a terrific place to farm and raise a family.

The wonderful scenery of Minnesota farmland is the perfect backdrop to give you some perspective on issues big and small. It’s also a powerful illustration of the positive role agriculture can play in resource conservation.

I wish more non-farmers could visit greater Minnesota and see how much work goes on at the farm level to protect soil and water quality. This month, for example, we’re recognizing a major milestone in the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s (MDA) Agricultural Best Management Practices loan program. To date, 10,000 loans have been issued totaling more than $150 million for projects that prevent pollution. This includes 2,000 loans to provide financing for manure management and 3,000 projects to help farmers purchase conservation tillage equipment. Farmers are using the equipment financed by this program on more than 2 million acres of land.

And the work continues. Just recently, MDA rolled out a new program for Minnesota livestock producers called the Livestock Environmental Quality Assurance Program (LEQA). Using funds from the environmentally-dedicated sales tax, we launched the program to help livestock producers take the initiative to evaluate water quality issues and implement appropriate practices. The idea is that this program will be a useful tool for farmers looking to take the next step in addressing environmental concerns on lands they manage.

The LEQA program merges farmers’ and government’s efforts to obtain a water-quality score for any particular farm. The assessments help the farmers figure out what actions they can take themselves, and how the government programs can help. More information is available at www.agresourcestrategies.com.

One aspect of this program worth highlighting is that it is voluntary and not based on the assumption that farmers need to be coerced into action. We’re using the carrot and not the stick, and based on farmers’ past records we have every reason to expect that this approach will be very successful. After all, Minnesota farmers understand the importance of clean water as much as anyone.  And as people who make their living from the land, they certainly understand the value of keeping topsoil where it’s at. That’s why producers have been and always will be at the forefront of managing Minnesota’s soil and water resources.

Yes, when bad actors or careless operators pollute or degrade our environment, they must be held accountable for their actions. But those incidents get attention because they are out of the ordinary. We can’t let those rare, high-profile mistakes and misdeeds blind us to the positive contributions made every day by so many farmers around the state. As someone once said, the real conservationist isn’t the one who says the river is dirty; it’s the one who goes out and cleans up the river. Even better are the folks who prevent it from getting dirty in the first place.

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