Cunningham becomes first area producer to be Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certified

PIPESTONE -- From the east, west and south of Ian Cunningham's fourth-generation family farm outside of Pipestone, passersby get a glimpse of green growth not just in the pastures, but in the acres and acres of rolling farm fields.

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Ian Cunningham of rural Pipestone examines the soil health on his farm after years of planting cover crops.

PIPESTONE - From the east, west and south of Ian Cunningham’s fourth-generation family farm outside of Pipestone, passersby get a glimpse of green growth not just in the pastures, but in the acres and 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 - when most area farmers haven’t planted their seeds for the growing season.So what are those green plants growing in the fields? Cover crops. The winter rye is several inches high and, 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.“Seventy-five to 100 years ago, it was a standard practice to broadcast dwarf essex rape into the corn field during the last cultivation,” explained Cunningham, whose great-grandfather broke the prairie on the family farm in the early 1880s. “Instead of picking the corn by hand, we would turn feeder lambs out in the field and they would eat the cover crop and the corn. Then we’d go help the neighbors pick corn and then we’d buy it from them to feed our livestock.”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.“We try to grow some things that they’re not going to want to eat as much,” Cunningham said. “If it’s a field of turnips, they’re going to eat that pretty bare.”Each year, he plants 10 percent of his land into perennial forage production. The mix of seven to 10 species of cover crops gives the soil a break from a corn and soybean rotation.“For the health of the life under the soil, anytime you can introduce something that is unusual, it will benefit the diversity of the underground life in the soil,” he said.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.”Conservation-mindedCunningham was elected to the Pipestone County Soil and Water Conservation District’s board in 1999, and while he continues to serve locally, he is also president of the Minnesota Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts. His father helped establish the Pipestone County SWCD years ago, and his family’s history in conservation practices dates back to his great-grandfather.Cunningham’s farm, with its long slopes, has long presented challenges.“Back in the 1950s, soil erosion was our problem,” he said. “We addressed that by farming on the contour and installing grassed waterways. Back then, the only way we could control weeds, we thought, was with tillage.“Tillage was done before the crop was planted and several times while the crop was growing,” he added. “We’ve always tried to adapt our farming technology to prevent soil erosion. One of the biggest things we can do for clean water is to keep the soil where it is - to keep the nutrients, the things in the soil, in the field and not in the stream.”Cunningham said he is baffled that farms today still have problems with wind erosion.“We don’t. The way we’re farming, we keep the soil covered and we have better soil structure,” he said. It all points back to planting cover crops.An innovatorThrough his work with SWCDs, Cunningham was tapped to help develop the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program.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 launched recently.Cunningham became the 111th producer in the state to be certified. He was presented his MAWQCP sign March 30, when Dayton visited Edgerton to meet with the media about water quality issues in the southwest corner of the state.Becoming certifiedLandowners 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 regulations that may be brought forth by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, along with the state’s Department of Natural Resources, Pollution Control Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Board of Water and Soil Resources and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.Cunningham said the certification process took him just three weeks. “Working with the local SWCD since the early 1950s, a lot of those threats we’d addressed voluntarily years ago,” he said. For other producers, the certification process could take months, perhaps years, especially if they have to implement projects.“When we were designing the Minnesota Ag Water Quality Certification Program, we had an idea about what the goal would be for clean water, but we wanted to make sure there were many vehicles to get there in and that it wasn’t just no-till and cover crop,” Cunningham said.While both no-till and cover crops are a part of his operation, Cunningham has also introduced precision agriculture, grid sampling and variable application rates in recent years.“For the last half-decade, we’ve been trying to incorporate all of the principles of soil health,” he said. “The things we do that are good for the health of the soil are also good for clean water.”‘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.”More than a dozen other farmers across the state have followed suit since he became certified, and dozens more applications have been submitted for verification. Keep getting betterCunningham said part of the reason for the certification program was to give landowners a sense of security.“The whole concept is that agriculture sometimes feels that government keeps moving the goal post. That’s the regulatory certainty component of it,” he said. “The way our operation is now, any new rules we’d have 10 years to implement.”Certified farmers still have to “follow the rules,” and Cunningham hopes the program propels landowners to keep getting better and doing more for water quality.“Before I signed (to become certified), I said, ‘We can keep getting better, right?’ I wasn’t going to be stuck here,” he shared. “We can do anything that is better for water quality and I’m sure we’re going to try some things that don’t work, but hopefully we won’t try them in a big enough way to make an impact.”What are Cunningham’s plans?“We’re going to continue to refine our diversity of crops that we grow, and we’re going to keep trying to make the cover crop thing work better. We may come upon new, improved grazing techniques,” he said. “We’re going to keep our eyes open and see what other people are doing, what works and try to make it fit our own situation.“That’s the neat thing about being an innovator - you really don’t know what’s going to present itself,” he added.Not long ago, Cunningham heard a fellow fourth-generation farmer share his definition of sustainability, and he has adopted it for his farm as well.That definition: “Sustainability is the ability and the willingness to change when presented with the opportunity to improve.”“That fits us pretty well,” Cunningham said. “We want to be willing and able to change if we think we can improve.”

Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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