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Ian Cunningham of rural Pipestone, Minn., examines the soil health on his farm after years of planting cover crops. (JULIE BUNTJER | FORUM NEWS SERVICE)

First farmers finish new Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program

PIPESTONE, Minn. — Almost surrounding Ian Cunningham’s fourth-generation family farm outside Pipestone, Minn., passersby get a glimpse of green growth not just in the pastures, but in the acres of rolling farm fields.

The sight wouldn’t be unusual if it was mid-May and the newly planted corn and soybeans were emerging from the soil, but this is mid-April.

What’s providing the splendid bright colors are cover crops. The winter rye is several inches high and, about two weeks ago, Cunningham planted a mix of forage peas and oats.

While cover crops have garnered a lot of press in recent years, Cunningham and the generations of his family before him were early innovators.

Now, he’s an innovator, too, as part of the first wave of state farmers in the newly launched Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program that helps in the state’s effort to improve waters across the state and in return guarantees farmers that they won’t be bothered with any new state or federal regulations for 10 years.

So far, about 125 of the state’s 80,000 farms are in the program, but hundreds more have applied and the state hopes to boost the number certified significantly in coming years, according to Minnesota Ag Commissioner Dave Frederickson.

For now, Cunningham is doing his part -- acre by acre --which is what Frederickson believes needs to happen statewide in a process that slowly but surely will improve runoff and other problems and improve the long-term outlook. That will, then, boost water quality in the state for years to come, he hopes.

Cunningham, who is currently president of the Minnesota Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts, knows his family’s history of being conservationists.

Cunningham said 75 to 100 years ago, it was a standard practice to broadcast a cover crop type seed during the last cultivation.

Renewed interest in cover crops came during the farm crisis of the early 1980s. “A government program paid us not to grow a crop that year,” Cunningham said. While corn and soybeans were not an option, he planted oats and turnips and grazed sheep on it.

In the years that followed, he planted alternative crops when it seemed to fit with the operation. Cover crops have become a priority since 2001, and he now grows them on 100 percent of the land he farms.

The practice provides a multitude of soil health benefits, which in turn boosts crop yields. Cunningham also benefits by grazing cattle on both the farm fields and in a perennial forage pasture. The pasture consists of 25 paddocks and short-duration, high-intensity grazing practices are used so cattle do not eat everything that’s growing.

Cunningham’s corn and soybean fields are interseeded with winter rye.

“We’ve had no problems getting it seeded,” he said, adding that the seed is planted with a no-till drill. “Some people say they don’t have time for that. We spend way less time seeding cover crops than they do doing intense tillage.”

Helped develop program

Through his work with SWCDs, Cunningham was tapped to help develop the water quality certification effort.

The program took root in January 2012 when Gov. Mark Dayton, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and then-administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Lisa Jackson signed a memorandum of agreement for Minnesota to create an ag certainty program. Cunningham was one of 15 stakeholders to serve on a planning committee making recommendations for the program. That grassroots process led to a pilot project launched in four small Minnesota watersheds in 2013. A statewide voluntary program was launched recently.

Cunningham became the 111th producer in the state to be certified earlier this year and the number has climbed to 125 as of April, Frederickson said.

In the program, landowners and operators must complete an application, have an assessment of their conservation practices by their local SWCD office and then be verified by staff from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to become certified.

The three-step process provides producers with a 10-year exemption from any new state or federal regulations that may be brought forth.

Cunningham said the certification process took him just three weeks. For other producers, the certification process could take months, perhaps years, especially if they have to implement projects.

He said when designing the program the planners didn’t want just no-till and cover crops to be the way for a person to get certified. Some of the other options now available are precision agriculture, grid sampling and variable application rates -- things Cunningham has also adopted.

‘Doing everything we can’

While the certification program offers a decade of protection from new regulations, Cunningham said that wasn’t why he applied.

“It seems to me if someone wants to say something bad about agriculture, there are a lot of people ready and willing to believe them,” he said. “If someone wants to say something good about agriculture, that takes proof. I can say our operation has been assessed and we are doing everything we can for water quality — that’s the primary reason I did it — and to maybe serve as a good example.”

Certified producers don’t receive any government payments by being in the program, but they can access USDA Regional Conservation Partnership Program funding to implement additional water quality projects.

“(Being in the process to become certified) makes an additional pool of money available for financial assistance for trying new things — constructing structures like water and sediment control basins, grassed waterways, riparian buffers and things like that,” Cunningham said. “It opens up opportunities if getting financial assistance is one of the things it’s going to take to change farming practices on a particular operation.”

Frederickson said the program now covers about 73,000 acres and he’s really pleased.

He said to improve water quality, it’s going be done” acre-by-acre, farm-by-farm, county-by-county and watershed-by-watershed.”

The commissioner said another 400 farms are “in the ready” to be certified, but the effort takes time to walk the land and work out agreements with producers.

He said the focus is on on southern and central Minnesota where nitrates are leaching into water supplies, rivers and lakes.

“We are all part of the problem and the solution,” Frederickson said. Being a headwater state for the Mississippi River and other major waterways, the problems start in Minnesota.

And the solutions can start here, too, he said.

As a former farmer himself, Frederickson realizes that producers “don’t like to be told what to do.”

“I get it, but a good defense is a good offense,” he said about the way to counteract the increasing calls to improve water quality for drinking and recreation.

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