“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”
– Matthew, 6:28-29
Jonathan and I were attending graduation open houses on a rainy day this weekend, and noticed how the water was standing in fields near drainage ditches following a pretty intense downpour. There was one field in particular, where the buffer strip is about 5 feet wide at its peak. This narrow buffer is good to prevent accidental applications of fertilizers or pesticides onto the banks of the drainage ditch, but it would never be crucial in filtering surface drainage. Why? The land runs up hill to the ditch bank. The standing water shows where the low spots are.
This photo was taken along the county road, so the ditch in the foreground is road ditch. When you follow the curve of the crops, you will see on the left hand side the strip of grass. That is the edge of the narrow buffer. Look how far back the water is standing.
Here is another view of the same ditch, and the same field, taken from a little farther down the road.
The ditch bank is fully intact, and doesn’t have water flowing from the field over the crown and into the ditch. This is a good example of how site specific buffer strips make sense. I would have to agree, too, with the NRCS buffer strip study that stressed the importance of site specific buffer strips, and not having that be the stand alone way to achieve the water quality results we are looking for. As more farmers are going back to no-till or minimum till methods, implementing cover crops, and using variable rate technology, our water quality will continue to improve.
Farmers are not opposed to installing buffer strips. Farmers are not opposed to clean water. Farmers are opposed to a one-size-fits-all-one-method-will-fix-all way of thinking. We cannot forget the importance of site specific buffer strips, nor the importance of a little common sense.
I come from a pretty close family, and love hanging out with my brothers and sisters. Even though they make me mad at times, I still love them.
When we read 1 John 4: 20-21, I’m not sure that the meaning is just our immediate siblings, but brothers and sisters in Christ. This verse challenges me when I feel hurt by another Christian…it makes me not want to love them. But I must. I am challenged to love those who are not fellow believers as well…because some day they may become a brother or sister in Christ. This is one area I’m working on with my real life relationships as well as my online relationships.
Water Quality. We hear the term in the news, in press conferences, and in editorials surrounding the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton’s proposals to regulate land use primarily in agricultural areas. What is water quality, and what does it have to do with land control?
The Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed Rule, which would redefine what the term “waters of the U.S.” means, has a host of issues. However, the way they are selling their proposed change is in the name of water quality. Thing is, their rule change has nothing to do with water quality, since all the waters in question are already covered by the Clean Water Act. What it does talk about at length, is jurisdiction. The EPA thinks it can do a better job at implementing the provisions of the Clean Water Act than the states can. I don’t know about your state, but Minnesota is doing a great job at identifying impaired waters, establishing a game plan, and achieving it. Personally, I think states, who involve people who live and work in the watershed, are much more effective at protecting water quality than Washington bureaucrats who have probably never set foot in the watershed they are trying to regulate.
So, what is the point of redefining what constitutes a water of the United States if it isn’t going to change the national water quality standards outlined in the Clean Water Act? Could it be power? Control over agricultural lands? The Rule would broaden the scope of the EPA, and basically puts them in the business of regulating a farmer’s activities, which is not what Congress intended. If your land happens to be within the boundaries of the newly defined significant nexus, you may need a permit from the EPA to do ordinary farming practices. Farmers are already working towards the water quality goals of the watersheds their land is in. On our farm, we have taken advantage of voluntary programs, and federal farm programs that encourage soil and water conservation. We have planted marginal lands into Conservation Reserve Program grasslands, planted living snow fences, and use cover crops. Soil samples, plant tissue samples, and manure samples are tested to determine the correct rate of manure application each fall. We are doing what we can to meet or exceed the standards set for the watershed our land is in.
Redefining the Waters of the United States in the name of water quality is deceiving…a red herring. The EPA is simply looking for more ways to control what happens on the land. Land owned by farmers and landowners who are already complying with CWA standards.
Water quality has also been a hot topic on the state level in a few states lately. In Minnesota, Governor Mark Dayton has asked for a 50 foot riparian buffer strip along all rivers, streams, and ditch banks and everywhere water flows “most of the time”. Sounds good on the surface, but like the EPA’s WOTUS rule, the Governor’s plan has some major flaws.
Farmers are not opposed to buffers. In the right locations, at the appropriate width designed for that particular location, they can be very effective. One-size-fits-all makes no sense if the goal is improving water quality. However, the news media has been blasting agriculture for not doing their part to improve water quality, and is telling the public that we need these buffer strips to achieve water quality. When I read the proposed Senate and House bills, I was puzzled. What exactly is this water quality they are talking about? Under the Purpose of the bill, it lists “protecting water from runoff and erosion; stabilizing soils, shores, and banks; and provide aquatic and wildlife habitat.” (HF1534, MN House of Representatives) Is that what water quality is? If that is the state’s definition of water quality, we can achieve that in without a mandatory, one-size-fits-all 50 foot buffer strip.
One of the Governor’s reasons for the need for the 50 foot buffer strip is the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s latest report on the Missouri River Basin in Southwest Minnesota. As I was reading the full report, a few things stood out. Governor Dayton kept referring to how bad the water quality is, but the same report that had the media blasting agriculture for all the water woes also contained some positive news. Two of the major watersheds had improved water quality over the past 10 years. Pipestone Creek and the Rock River both showed decreases in Total Suspended Solids and Total Phosphorus, two areas of assessment that is mentioned many times in the MPCA’s report.
The other thing that I noticed is that there is no water quality standard for Total Phosphorus in streams, and there are no Nitrite/Nitrate standards in streams or lakes. When reading the chemistry results from the tested waters – where there were water chemistry reports – there were numbers present, but no parameters for TP or Nitrite/Nitrogen. If there are no water quality standards, or water quality goals, how can we know if we have achieved the desired result?
The idea of no water quality standard or goal in the proposed bill was brought up at the Governor’s Buffer Strip Session in Worthington, Minnesota. I was happy the gentleman asked the question, since I had noticed the lack of goals in the bill, but just thought I was missing a point. That question raises another one. If there are no Total Phosphorus standards for streams, how are we to know when we have reached an achievable goal? Is it the historic levels dating back before the European settlements? What if those numbers were historically high, even before the prairies were turned in to farmland? Are we just going to be chasing an unachievable number?
Spring Lake, near Prior Lake recently made a request to the EPA to change the standard for Total Phosphorus from 40 ppb to 60 ppb after a lake sediment core was studied, and it found that Spring Lake historically was high in Total Phosphorus. So, if TP was high before the land surrounding Spring Lake was turned into farmland, is it agriculture solely to blame? I don’t think so.
It remains that there are no true water quality standards set out in Governor Dayton’s Buffer Strip bill. Even when farmers are accused of not doing their part to improve water quality, the MPCA’s own documents show otherwise. So, if there is no true water quality standard in the bill, using water quality as the selling point is deceiving…a red herring. What is it that the Governor truly wants? More land.
In December, the Governor held a Pheasant Summit to address the decline in the pheasant population in Minnesota. It was there that the first mentions of a 50 foot buffer strip plan were heard. When the Governor announced his plan a few weeks later, it was not met with much enthusiasm. In January, the buffer strip idea was introduced as a way to increase water quality. Water quality is an emotional subject, and has been used as a rallying cry for the Governor’s plan to put the Department of Natural Resources in charge of those 50 foot buffers on privately owned land. In the name of water quality, farmers have been raked through the mud and have been characterized as being uncaring polluters. As mentioned above, we do many things to improve water and soil conservation on our farm. We care about water quality just as much as our friends in town do. We drink the water from our wells, we bathe in it, we use the water for recreation, and we depend on the rain for our crops. Jonathan and I are not unique in that aspect.
If the EPA or the Governor were truly more interested in water quality than control of property rights, they would support incentives for farmers, businesses and non-farmer land owners that allow for an individualized approach that takes into account the unique features of that property. Both entities need to quit deceiving the public, and call their proposals what they really are: A quest for the control of the landowner’s private property.
In our bulletin each Sunday, we have a Prayer for the Journey. I loved today’s prayer…they are words I needed to hear, and to pray. Pastor also talked about how we celebrate the resurrection every time we forgive those who cause us pain, and treat them with kindness, and love. It reminded me of a few people that have hurt me on social media, and how I no longer feel I can trust them. I need to live out this verse:
“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” John 20:23
My goals for the near future are to work on forgiving those who have hurt me, and to celebrate our common humanity instead of quarreling over our differences.
Have a wonderful week!
In January, Minnesota’s Governor Mark Dayton announced a plan to require a 50 foot buffer strip along all rivers, streams, and drainage ditches in the state. Mandating a set buffer strip width for all of those waterways means topography, soil types, and surrounding land use will no longer be determining factors in buffer strip width. This one-size-fits-all approach won’t improve water quality like we’ve been told it will.
The NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Services) published a report in 2000 that talked about the different types of water control features that would help trap soil, nutrient, and pesticides, which would help to improve water quality. In the report, they stated how using multiple methods was more effective than a single method for controlling water flow, water filtration, and pesticide trapping. Many improvements have been made in the 15 years since this report was published. Let me highlight a few for you.
The use of cover crops is a relatively new trend in our area. Cover crops are a blend of plants grown for their ability to prevent soil erosion, manage water and water quality, suppress weeds, and hold soil nutrients in place. We plant our cover crops right after our wheat is harvested which will give the plants enough time to grow well and be more effective. Other farmers will use airplanes to spread the seed before their row crop is harvested. In the 14 years that we have been growing cover crops, we have experimented with different seed mixes until we found what works best on our soil. The combination of tillage radishes and oats that we use provides two very different types of plants which is also beneficial for wildlife. The deer graze on the tillage radish leaves, and pheasants use the taller oats for cover. This is a win-win for water quality, soil health, and wildlife.
Global Positioning Systems (GPS), broadband internet, and computers in combines and tractors have made it possible to create accurate maps of every field. These maps are uploaded onto a computer, where we can then work with our local agronomist to determine what recipe each field needs to grow the crop that will be planted in it. Each recipe will be different for each field, depending on what we will be growing, the results of our soil and plant tissue tests, and the yield data from the year before. Our corn and wheat both need manure applied to supply the nutrients that the plants need to grow well. However, they do not require the same amount of manure, so we follow the recipes to make sure we are not using too much manure on the fields. We like to use cover crops as part of our recipe for our corn fields, since the tillage radish helps to keep the nutrients from the manure where the corn roots will be. This combination of conservation methods works great over an entire field to keep soil and nutrients from eroding, and doesn’t just rely on the last 50 feet before a water way.
Fifteen years ago, I never imagined all of the things computers and information technology could do for agriculture. Of course, at that time, I was still using a Nokia cell phone with an external antenna, and the iPhone was still 7 years away from being released. Now, besides most farmers having smart phones, there are computers in tractors, fertilizer spreaders, and sprayers. These computers allow farmers to use their field recipes as they are driving up and down the fields, many times driving with the aid of GPS auto guidance systems. The Precision Planting computer we have in our tractor helps our planter keep the seed planting depth at the perfect level through the variations in the firmness of the soil, varies the amount of seeds per acre according to soil type, and will shut off boxes at the end of the rows or where the rows overlap on curves so we don’t waste seed. We work with our Precision Planting Specialist to make sure our recipes are entered into to the computer correctly, and that the equipment is communicating with the computer. Fertilizer spreaders with variable rate technology are used by our friends. Their field maps and recipes are loaded into the computer, and the fertilizer is spread where it is needed. A similar system is used with sprayers when applying pesticides. The field map can be set up to avoid spraying in certain sensitive areas, and to avoid overlapping the spray with auto shut off valves. We don’t use fertilizer spreaders or sprayers on our farm, so I would encourage you to go to your favorite farmer or The Farmer’s Life if you have questions.
On our farm, we have planted some buffer strips with the help of our NRCS Conservationist and local Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD). On one ditch where the ditch bank rises to the edge we have a very narrow grass buffer, which is all that is needed. We are also using cover crops, field mapping, and precision equipment. This multi-pronged approach to water quality, soil health, and wildlife habitat is a better approach than a mandate of every river, stream, and drainage ditch needing a 50 foot buffer. Some ditches or streams do not need a grass buffer, while some could benefit from one that is greater than 50 feet. Every farmer should be able to figure out what conservation practices will work best on their farm, and should be able to change those practices when needed. Farmers want to be able to hand down their land to the next generation. To do that, we need to care for the soil and water in the best ways we can. Putting all of our water quality eggs into one basket isn’t the best way to achieve that.
To read more on how this buffer strip proposal would affect Minnesotans, I highly recommend that you read this post by Sara Hewitt.
As agvocates, we share our perspectives of agriculture from the lens of our own truth. My lens, or filters will be different from all other agvocates, because I have different experiences and my farm is different from all others. Having that diversity is awesome when it comes to agvocating, especially if the main message is a unified one: Agriculture is important in the United States, and we are blessed to have the safest, most abundant food supply, with the best choices available to fit everyone’s desires. So, if we see things through our own lens, which gives us our own truth, how do we stand united?
Over the past 18 months, I have been to many conferences where speakers and consumer researchers have told the attendees to meet their consumers on an emotional level. We need to make them feel good, and help them understand that no matter what they purchase in the grocery store they are supporting a farming or ranching family. Looking at agvocating from that perspective, I see three phrases or ideas that we should lose in order to reach our consumers on that emotional level.
It’s pretty safe to say that there isn’t a person alive in North America who hasn’t felt the sting of judgement from their friends or neighbors. Heck, some of us have felt the sting of judgement from our fellow agvocates. The most popular form of judgement is food shaming. Typically, it is seen as a totally granola mom telling all her friends they have to eat only organic to “properly” raise their children. There is a lot of outrage in those instances. When a mom who feeds her kids organic gets shamed, and told that she’s just wasting her money on a marketing scheme, is that any better? There isn’t as much outrage when that happens, but to me, shaming is shaming, and it needs to stop. We will never be the trusted source of information for consumers if we are making them feel bad about their choices. Bottom line: nobody wants to feel stupid for the choices they make. We lose their trust, and they go elsewhere for their information (Peta, HSUS, etc). We need to stop shaming our consumers…and each other.
I’ll admit that this hashtag and the accompanying tweets associated with it annoy me for a couple of reasons. First, most of the tweets have a “I can’t believe you don’t know this” attitude when telling people about some study or another that proves that biotech or whatever is safe. The problem with that attitude is, we make consumers feel dumb. How many people have a science degree, or can understand what the studies are saying? We’re told when giving speeches or agvocating in public to speak at a 4th grade level…I’ve read many study abstracts, and I can tell you, they are not written at a 4th grade level! The Center for Food Integrity’s 2014 research talks a lot about this very thing. We cannot forget about the impact that emotion plays when people are deciding whether or not to trust your truth. Secondly, many of the tweets associated with this hashtag make it sound like the only science in agriculture is biotechnology. When you think about it, biotechnology is a pretty small part of the science that goes into raising a crop, even if the majority of corn, soybeans, and cotton raised in North America are genetically engineered. We all need to pay attention to soil science, plant science (including weeds), pathology, animal science, and hydrology…not to mention computer science, and engineering. I know I’m missing some major ones, but you get the idea. Agriculture involves a lot of science, no matter what you grow. We just can’t assume that our consumers will “get” the science that we work with every day. Heck, I don’t understand the science that goes along with range management or animal nutrition, because I don’t ever work with that. Fortunately, I have trusted friends I can go to when I have questions. That’s what we need to be to our consumers.
I’ve had many great conversations about this phrase. Looking at it from an agvocating point of view, though, I think we need to lose it. As consumers, we are all a bit self centered. We want what we want when we want it. When we are making our way through the grocery store, we are not thinking about how many people in the world the average farmer is feeding. We are thinking about checking off our grocery lists, or we’re trying to remember what it is we needed as we’re being distracted by kids, neighbors who want to say hello, or the little old ladies who need help getting a bag of cat food into their cart. This message is being lost on the consumer. I don’t know about you, but I eat a pretty diverse diet. I like my cereal or eggs in the morning, but the rest of the day I’m eating a variety of meats, potatoes or rice, and vegetables. For snacks, I like fruits, or coffee. I don’t like eating the same thing all the time, because I get bored with it. There are what, nine genetically engineered crops on the market? Foods made with those crops do not make up the entirety of the average diet. We need the diversity in agriculture to make the whole system work. We celebrate diversity in every other aspect of our lives, why not in agriculture? When the whole choir only sings one note, there is no harmony. When my BLT has no L or T, it is just a bacon sandwich…but that actually doesn’t sound all that bad….
In our lenten series at church this year, our Pastor has been talking about not separating our faith from our every day life, but to treat it as we do everything else. The funny thing is, I have taken a ton of notes during his Sunday sermons lately, because they fit agvocating so well. The verse on the photo above summed up my feelings about how to agvocate effectively without running the risk of alienating other farmers or our consumers.
“Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Philippians 2: 3-4”
How cool would it be if we all agvocated that way…doing nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.
We can do this when we tell our story, since we know it better than anyone else. This also goes back to each of us having our own truth. Nobody can argue with you if you say, “On my farm, we do this…” or “On my ranch, we do that…” That is your story, and your truth. You can find things in common with your consumers if you write about things they may be able to relate to. They won’t relate to farming, but if you develop a relationship with them over a common topic, you will be their trusted source when you do write about agriculture.
I absolutely believe we can speak as a unified voice for agriculture, but it’s going to take a little change in attitude from all of us. Will you join me in supporting all of our farming and ranching families?