St. Paul — A Minnesota land-and-water conservation agency is preparing to roll out a new multi-million-dollar voluntary program to improve soil health on agricultural lands that state officials hope will also improve water quality and wildlife habitat.
The Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources is slated to receive $25 million in Regional Conservation Partnership Program funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service. State officials say the funding will offer financial incentives to producers to implement “soil health best management practices and systems,” such as no-till, strip-till, rotational grazing, and cover crops – practices that some observers say have been utilized in some cases for decades and which some producers have incorporated voluntarily.
“We’re trying to make soil health a top priority in Minnesota, and this funding is an important and valuable addition in that effort,” said John Jaschke, BWSR executive director. “By improving soil health, we can reduce erosion from tilled fields, which is a significant source of sediment entering major waterways such as the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers. These best management practices also offer benefits to producers by contributing to their long-term health of their soils.”
BWSR is one of 81 organizations selected by the NRCS to receive what federal officials say is an “unprecedented $1.1 billion investment through the RCPP,” which takes a voluntary approach to farmland conservation through public-private partnerships, in hopes of improving water quality and wildlife habitat through various “climate-smart” agricultural practices.
In addition to the federal funding, BWSR also received $21 million from the state’s general fund and $13 million from the state’s Clean Water Fund to support soil health in Minnesota.
“It’s a substantial investment,” Jaschke said.
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Conservation officials say the various “best management practices” offered to producers through the new RCPP can provide ecological benefits. Wildlife cover crops, for example, provide additional food (for livestock and wildlife) and cover on a landscape, as well as encourage water filtration, improve erosion control, and bolster soil health.
The added plant diversity can often double as pollinator habitat. No-till planting keeps dirt in place after harvest, reduces erosion, and helps sequester carbon. Rotational grazing can in some cases provide habitat for grassland birds, which have varying habitat needs.
Becky Buchholz is a program technician with the Cottonwood Soil and Water Conservation District. Improving soil health, she said, is a constant battle in her region where row-crop agriculture is king.
“I drive across a lot of black dirt this time of year to get to work,” she said. “Any practices to keep that soil in place would be hugely beneficial.”
Buchholz said topsoil that leaves the landscape – from water runoff or wind erosion – typically gets deposited in low-lying water bodies such as wetlands.
“When sediment fills those wetlands over time, you stop getting wetland benefits to birds and other wildlife,” she said. “When the dirt fills them in, wetlands stop functioning as wetlands.”
Buchholz said she’s hopeful that producers will take an interest in the new program.
“Change is hard,” she said.
“But we’re also seeing a whole new generation of producers taking over farms, and many of them are exploring new ways to do things.”
Tom Kalahar, of Olivia, worked 35 years as a conservation technician with the Renville Soil and Water Conservation District. He retired in 2015. Kalahar is no stranger to the alphabet soup of county, state, and federal conservation programs – he helped enroll countless agricultural producers into many of them over the years.
Asked what he thought the new soil-health initiative, he didn’t mince words.
“It’s better than a sharp stick in the eye; it’s better than nothing,” Kalahar said. “But there’s no way that type of conservation funding will ever be able to compete with the commodity end of agriculture and the overwhelming incentives to plant row crops. Farmers react where the money is at, and you can’t blame them for that. Right now, the overwhelming amount of money goes to subsidizing corn and soybeans and other commodities and far less into conservation programs. Until we balance that out, we’re going to continue to have environmental problems in farm country.”
Kalahar points to his beloved Minnesota River watershed, where he hunts and fishes regularly, and which is dominated by row-crop agriculture. The river, he said, is impaired, according to state water-quality standards.
It’s getting wider and shallower, in large part from increasing soil health programs have had broad support and high demand flows of agriculture runoff. Such flows have more than doubled in the past 80 years, he said. That means more streambank erosion, increased sediment, and overall poorer water quality – including higher levels of phosphorus and nitrates. Turbid water is commonplace.
“This region has been farmed so hard that to keep getting the higher yields, more and more commercial fertilizer is needed,” Kalahar said. “Maybe this new program represents another way. I hope that it helps. I really do.”
Jaschke said most of the details of the new program, including a funding formula, contract duration, as well as how its impacts will be measured, won’t be rolled out until next year. He said the new funding will help the state’s SWCDs hire additional staff to implement the program and provide technical expertise to producers.
“Managing soil health isn’t the same; it’s different for every farm,” he said.
State officials say smaller-scale from producers over the years. They’re hoping the new RCPP will draw the same interest.
“We can’t be certain, but we’re hopeful,” Jaschke said.
In other news, the Board of Water and Soil Resources has received funding through the state’s Outdoor Heritage Fund and Clean Water Fund to secure Reinvest in Minnesota easements. The goal is to restore and protect state floodplain and riparian areas to improve and enhance water quality and wildlife habitat.
The land targeted is existing row crops with a riparian area or a mapped floodplain. The program offers limited-term and perpetual easements, with the flexibility to allow for limited working-lands activities. Applications will be accepted during the months of January, July, and October.
For more information on enrollment: https://bwsr.state.mn.us/what-programs-are-available