Solutions for Industrial Corporate Agriculture Pollution in Minnesota’s Waters

Footpath near river

One of the greatest threats to the quality and health of Minnesota’s rivers, lakes, streams, and drinking water sources comes in the form of excess chemicals, fertilizers, and sediment from irresponsible agricultural practices. While this pollution enters our rivers, lakes, and streams in many various ways, runoff from single crop farmland and factory farms are one of the largest contributors. In order to really address this problem we need to be creative and find a number of different solutions. Here are some of the most promising.

Buffer strips

Buffer strips are primarily designed to help filter out phosphorus, nitrogen, and sediment by preventing erosion, slowing runoff, and trapping polluted materials. Buffer strips run along the edge of fields and are planted with various types of plants and grasses. This vegetation absorbs and filters pollutants from the adjacent fields, preventing them from entering the water supply. These strips also provide great habitat for wildlife like fish, birds, and pollinators and help facilitate absorb floodwaters during big storm events.

Cover Crops

Cover crops are similar to vegetative buffer strips. Most cover crops are grasses, legumes and perennial wildflowers that are planted on cropland when the fields would otherwise lie fallow, exposing the soil to the elements and potentially increasing erosion into rivers, lakes, and streams.

There are three main benefits of cover crops:

  • The extra vegetation helps reduce wind and water erosion.
  • The additional organic matter opens up the soil structure, allowing more water in and reducing runoff. It also stores significant nitrogen for use by the next crop, and enhances overall soil fertility while reducing the need for excess synthetic fertilizers.
  • Finally, it helps protect groundwater quality by soaking up excess nitrogen.

The advantages farmers gain by using cover crops often depends on the specific circumstances surrounding their individual farms. This means that some farmers may want to plant grasses during the off season to prevent wind and water erosion, while others may utilize certain cover crops’ ability to outcompete weeds. The majority of cover crops are planted in early spring and late fall when the traditional cash crops are out of season. Thus, other than the added challenges to crop management, farmers have little incentive not to utilize them.

The Forever Green program at the University of Minnesota is working to research the best crops to use in Minnesota for cover crops, but also looking at ways to make cover crops marketable so farmers can do the right thing for clean water and help them become more profitable.

Reduce Row Crop Used for Ethanol

Advanced cellulosic ethanol from perennial vegetative feedstock is a healthy alternative that help us achieve ethanol mandates and can be good for our water, land, air, and rural economies. While other states, like Iowa, are welcoming new biofuel facilities, those facilities use mostly corn stover — the stalks, leaves and stems left over after the corn is harvested. This might seem like an efficient use of the “leftovers”, removing stover from fields leaves them barren for months at a time over the winter, resulting in fields that leach agricultural pollutants and lose soil to erosion.

In Minnesota, we want to take a different direction. We need to change the landscape from single crop corn fields, into fields of perennials that will benefit water quality and soil health, help mitigate carbon pollution, and provide habitat for pollinators, birds, and other wildlife. A common, but expensive practice currently utilized to achieve this goal are programs like the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which provides annual payment to farmers in exchange for removing environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and planting species that will improve environmental quality.

It would take a lot of land in order to protect water quality and would cost billions of dollars in Minnesota alone. Rather than pay farmers to take land out of production in the CRP program, we need a market-based incentive for farm operators to replace annual crops like corn and soybeans with perennial crops. These plants would be suitable for use as feedstock in advanced biofuel facilities. These plants  would be a sustainable energy source (unlike corn ethanol), benefit water quality, and save money filtering out pollutants from our drinking water sources. On top of all of this it would also help reinvigorate rural economies.

Continuous Living Cover on the Land in Perennials

Creating an incentive for farmers to grow perennial crops would assure that advanced biofuel refineries will have the feedstock to operate at a profit. In turn, the state incentive program would ensure local landowners can profitably plant the perennial crops This program would be a win-win-win for everyone. Farms can diversify their cropping systems to include perennial crops while maintaining profitability. Perennial crops become economically viable, incentivizing more living cover on the land. Finally, Minnesota's biofuels industry would get a jumpstart, helping Minnesota become a world leader in this field. Our fuel mix would get cleaner, greener, and more sustainable, all while significantly improving water quality using a market-based approach rather than regulation.

We need to make this a priority and create the incentives to change the landscape of Minnesota. This means fewer single crop corn fields and more fields of perennials. This program could help achieve the state's long-term renewable fuel and water-quality goals simultaneously, while also creating more habitat, healthier soils, and climate resiliency throughout the state, and reinvigorate Minnesota’s rural communities and economies in a sustainable way.

Reducing Consumer Demand for Factory Farmed Products

Consumers have been led to believe that factory farms and row crops are the most efficient ways to produce the food we need. But this doesn't have to be the case. We can take control and change the system by changing our habits. We can ask our local super markets to carry more sustainably raised meat and produce grown in ways which don't pollute our water. We can drive less by ourselves, carpool more, and encourage our municipalities to invest in mass transit and biking and walking options. Change starts with all of us -- and just a few changes can go a long way.

How you can get more involved and help create solutions in your community

Addressing runoff pollution from industrial agricultural sources is one of the biggest challenges facing Minnesota’s rivers, lakes, streams, and drinking water now and into the future.  Clean Water Action will advocate for continued funding for the Forever Green Initiative at the University of Minnesota, We will push for solutions including more buffers on waterways, better fertilizing practices to protect drinking water sources, more plant diversity, and other best management practices.. When we use all of these tools and enforce the protections we already have in law, we will truly be on the path to ensuring all waters in Minnesota are suitable for drinking, swimming, and fishing.

Clean Water Action needs your help to make sure these clean water solutions become a reality.  You can join our team of advocates who are working to get this done.  It doesn't matter if you are a lifelong volunteer or a first-timer, we need you! Contact our Water Program Coordinator, Steve Schultz at sschultz@cleanwater.org and we can connect with you and set you up with activities you are comfortable doing and you can take action to make this a reality.

Click here to see ways you can get engaged and be a Clean Water Advocate!

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