MDA Commissioner's Column January 2012

Published on Wednesday, 30 November -0001 00:00
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By Dave Frederickson, Minnesota Dept. of Agriculture

Minnesota is a headwaters state for three major watersheds - the Mississippi River, the Red River and Great Lakes. That means a rain drop that falls on a Minnesota farm field can end up in the Gulf of Mexico, Hudson Bay or the Gulf of St. Lawrence. It also means that decisions made in management of Minnesota land - whether urban, suburban or rural - can make a difference thousands of miles away.

Minnesota farmers are aware of this connection, and they work hard to practice sound resource management. As the understanding of cropping systems and their impacts has evolved over the decades, more and more farmers have embraced conservation practices like grass buffer strips, precision nutrient application and minimal tillage.

At the same time, farm families are doing their best in a challenging global economy. They face intense pressure, even in times of strong commodity prices, to keep a lid on expenses and operating costs. That pressure has driven many farmers to express concern about the impact of an evolving and uncertain regulatory landscape on their business plans and prospects. Farm families are accustomed to dealing with tumultuous markets and weather, but the uncertainty about what they will be asked or required to do with regard to water quality is a wild card. The concern is that farmers will be asked to bear the cost of implementing one set of practices only to find a few months or years later that they face new expenses related to different requirements.

That's why Governor Dayton and I recently joined U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, and commissioners from several state agencies in an agreement to go in a new direction, one that gives farmers long-term conservation clarity while also accelerating the state's progress on clean water goals. Minnesota will be the first state to accomplish this "win-win" scenario through a program called the Minnesota Ag Water Quality Certification Program. Our goal is to accelerate voluntary adoption of on-farm water-quality practices while at the same time giving farmers more certainty about future requirements for additional conservation measures.

Details still need to be worked out, but the program likely will include the following provisions:

* Farmers and ranchers who commit to implement and maintain an approved conservation plan will receive assurance and recognition that their operation meets water quality goals and standards;

* Conservation plans will be tailored to fit the unique circumstances of different farms, watersheds and production systems; and

* So long as participating farmers meet their obligations under the program, they will not be required to implement additional water-quality practices for the duration of their agreements.

We expect this program to have a positive and long-lasting impact on the quality of Minnesota's lakes, rivers and streams. We all know clean water is important, and that there are contributions we all can make to improve water quality. I am excited at this opportunity to work with farmers and other partners to accelerate our progress.