Nearly half of the land in the state is cropland. Recent studies conducted by the Minnesota Pollution Control agency (MPCA) have identified cropland as the source of over 70% of nitrogen pollution in state surface waters.1 Addressing this challenge will involve more than just technical expertise and innovation. There is currently a mismatch between the scale of efforts and the scale of the water quality problem. Reducing row crop agriculture's impact on water quality will require investments in the expertise needed to address difficult social dimensions in the complex arenas of civic engagement and environmental decisionmaking. Organizations involved in agriculture and water quality that offer technical conservation assistance are typically found useful by farmers. These organizations, however, often lack expertise in social sciences that would allow them to more effectively reach more farmers — especially those farmers who are not proactively visiting agency offices. The Freshwater Society, in partnership with the National Park Service Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, focused the on-the-ground work of their recent FarmWise program in the Rice Creek, Belle Creek and Little Cannon subwatersheds. The findings of the FarmWise program, coupled with additional research2 and collected evidence, have helped the Freshwater Society identify insights that could contribute to increased success of addressing agriculture-related water pollution issues in a voluntary framework. Minnesota's voluntary approach to reducing pollution from row crop agriculture has not resulted in water quality improvements at the pace and scale hoped for from that sector. As Minnesota continues to pursue a voluntary approach to water pollution from row crop agriculture, the lessons learned by the FarmWise program and others like it will be important to consider as a wide range of agricultural, natural resource, and governmental interests work together for cleaner water. The recommendations coming out of the FarmWise program will require a significant shift in "business as usual" by state agencies, natural resource-based organizations, the legislature, and agricultural representatives alike. The scale of the challenges requires solutions of a similar scale. There are real barriers that prevent farmers from participating to the fullest extent in conservation programs. These policy, skill, and programmatic barriers exist at multiple levels, from the local landowner to the federal level. Minnesota will need to refine systems and equip all players to lead to healthier water. What follows is a short summary of background and context of the challenges of working in partnership to address agriculture-related water quality issues, a summary of the findings of the FarmWise program, recommendations for steps Minnesota can undertake to revise existing systems, the rationale behind the recommendations, and a listing of key players and partnerships in the work of change.
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Minnesota Freshwater Society (St. Paul, Minnesota)
Minnesota Water Research Digital Library