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One of the first conservation steps Rich and Carol Radtke took when they began their organic dairy was to install fencing to keep their dairy cattle from the waters of Shakopee Creek. Prairie’s Edge Organic Dairy is located northwest of Pennock. (SUBMITTED)

Pennock (Minn.) dairy becomes first certified for water quality

PENNOCK, Minn. — No point telling Rich and Carol Radtke it can’t be done.

Bankers tried. Seven years later, the Radtkes are proving at Prairie’s Edge Organic Dairy that it is possible to make a living on a 160-acre farm in the era of ‘get big or get out.’

A fire tried sending the same sort of message when it took down their milking barn in March of 2014. A GoFundMe campaign and help from a benefactor and neighbors have allowed them to build a state-of-the-art milking parlor in its place.

Now the Radtkes are hoping to show everyone what else can be done. It’s possible to make a living on the land by improving the landscape and the water that leaves it.

“He really wants to improve the landscape, the soil and water quality, and make it better for the next generation,’’ said Grant Pearson with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

Pearson’s statement came last week as he recognized the Radtkes’ farm northwest of Pennock as the first in Kandiyohi County to be certified under the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program

The farm is the 71st in the state to be certified in the program, according to Peter Gillitzer, also with the Department of Agriculture.

Rick Reimer, general manager of the Soil and Water Conservation District in Kandiyohi County, said it’s his hope that the Radtke farm is only the first of many to receive the certification in the county. “You will be our ambassador,’’ said Reimer to Rich Radtke as he accepted the certification.

“It’s really in line with what we’re doing,’’ Radtke said of the certification.

Rich and Carol and their three children moved in 2008 to the land where Rich had grown up. The couple gave up steady incomes and a spacious house to squeeze into a trailer where thawing the water pipes became a nightly ritual during the winter.

All this for the opportunity to farm, but well worth the sacrifice and risk, according to Rich. The trailer has been replaced by a house moved to the site, and their dairy has grown from 17 to 31 milking cows today.

They rent the land and certify it as organic. They installed fencing to keep their dairy cattle from the waters of Shakopee Creek.

They keep their cows on pasture. The milk is sold to Organic Valley Dairy. As an organic farm, they rotate crops — oats, barley, winter rye and alfalfa — to maintain cover on the 80 acres of tillable land.

“Our buffer strip is fenceline-to-fenceline,’’ Radtke said. The farm is going into the winter with no black soil exposed to the wind.

Melanie Dickman, conservationist with the Soil and Water Conservation District, said the Radtkes have implemented a variety of conservation practices, from planting windbreaks to seeding permanent cover on the most erosion- prone land.

The Radtkes’ focus on organic production meant they already had implemented many of the practices that benefit water quality. Rich said they didn’t mind taking the extra steps needed to be certified.

Pearson pointed out that the Water Quality Certification Program is available to all farms. It assists participants looking to implement best management practices that improve productivity as well as their farm’s stewardship role.

The program is entirely voluntary. The benefits to farmers are many, according to Pearson. They start with regulatory certainty. Participants are deemed in compliance with any new state or federal water quality rules.

Participants receive priority for technical and financial assistance to implement good stewardship practices.

And, the recognition can help promote the farm to consumers who appreciate the stewardship practices the program encourages.

Rich Radtke said they look at the program as a validation of their efforts to be good stewards.

Their goal is to see the land improved and made better for the generation that will follow, he explained. Their daughter Madison, a senior in high school, is actively involved with the dairy. She helps daily with the milking. Rich and Carol hope it will someday be her decision to make her living on the land.

As for being good stewards of the land, and taking the extra steps to become certified, Radtke put it this way: “People talk about it, but if you’re not doing it, it’s just talk.’’