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Group prioritizes conservation needs in hopes for federal funds

WORTHINGTON -- Nearly a dozen stakeholders gathered in Worthington Wednesday to prioritize efforts to protect the county's soil health and water quality.

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WORTHINGTON - Nearly a dozen stakeholders gathered in Worthington Wednesday to prioritize efforts to protect the county’s soil health and water quality.

The attendees, which included representatives from the Soil and Water Conservation District, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Kanaranzi-Little Rock and Okabena-Ocheda watershed districts, U.S. Fish & Wildlife, Nobles County and the city of Adrian, identified five resource concerns in hopes of getting future federal funds.

The top five concerns listed in order of priority are soil quality degradation with organic matter depletion; water quality degradation with excess nutrients in surface and groundwater; soil erosion from concentrated water flow; sheet, rill and wind erosion of the soil; and seasonal high water and flooding of ditches.

The priorities were developed from a list of more than 30 possible resource concerns, ranging from soil erosion and soil or water quality degradation to excessive or insufficient water, plant or habitat degradation, livestock production limitations, inefficient energy use and air quality.

Karen Boysen, soil conservationist in the local NRCS office, said Nobles County landowners sought funding in 2017 for just four practices - terraces, waterways, no-till and cover crops.

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With funding targeting those areas, she asked if there were other practices the local NRCS and SWCD should be promoting to landowners.

Group members seemed to agree that reduced tillage and cover crops would increase organic matter and improve soil quality. They would also help to reduce erosion and improve water quality with less sediment carried into water courses.

“If you’re going to bring the federal money in, you want it to help,” said Nobles County SWCD Manager John Shea.

And funding is what farmers say is keeping them from implementing soil health practices.

“More people are inquiring about cover crops, but only if they can get funding to assist with it,” Boysen said. “If they don’t get funding, they wouldn’t do (the practices) at all.”

The funding is meant to be an incentive, and the hope is once landowners see the benefits cover crops have on soil health, they will continue to plant cover crops without seeking state or federal financial assistance.

While farmers are interested in funding certain conservation practices, some of the federal programs are generating little interest locally.

Boysen said federal Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) money was used for two structural projects - one pond and an ag waste system - in Nobles County in 2017. Three other contracts helped producers fund cover crops or no-till practices.

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Without a payment cap, and with limited federal dollars coming to Minnesota, many applications for cover crops or no-till went unfunded, she noted.

“I think statewide we’d like to see a cap put on,” Boysen said.

Landowners who have completed Minnesota’s Ag Water Quality Certification Program have access to a different pot of money through EQIP that offers them higher payment rates to complete conservation practices. While the program has certified 541 producers across the state thus far, just five producers in Nobles County are certified, with another six individuals actively pursuing certification.

Other programs - such as the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) and Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) - have been of little interest locally.

“(CSP offers) a payment to change something on your property,” Shea said. “To change to strip-till or no-till, no-drip nozzle stuff, that’s the easy stuff people hit early. To reapply, you have to do something new and continue what you are doing.”

Both ACEP and CREP are for permanent easements.

“Perpetual easements are scary for people thinking about the next generation and leaving the land,” Shea said. “You can’t farm it, but you still have the tax.”

CREP has the potential to bring in a lot of federal money, but Shea said it’s a hard sell to landowners. Thus far, just one Nobles County producer has enrolled land in the program.

Related Topics: SOIL HEALTHWATER QUALITY
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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