RAPIDAN TOWNSHIP, Minn. – It’s a blustery morning in early May, only weeks after the last measurable snowfall placed this part of southern Minnesota under a deep white blanket, and Doug Hager is feeling the irrepressible itch that all Minnesota farmers feel this time of the year.
Only half of the 700 acres of corn to be grown this year on Hager’s Half Century Farm are in the ground, and another 700 acres of soybeans have yet to be planted. The landscape is cast in shades of brown from last year’s stubble and this year’s newly tilled soil, and there’s an odor of rich, raw earth and hog waste wafting across the farm – which to Hager is the smell of a good year coming.
But too much rain is coming too soon. By May, nearly 6 inches of rain had fallen on fields in Blue Earth County and much of the rest of Southern Minnesota, where corn and soybean yields are typically among the highest in the country. Farmers like Hager might hope for these kinds of soaking rains later in the summer, when crops are high and farmers need to recharge their wells – but not early in the season when fields are still saturated with snowmelt.
“Our number-one challenge is always to get the crop in and get the crop out and working around rain events,” Hager says on a recent tour of the farm.
It wasn’t always this way.
When Hager was a boy growing up on the farm founded by his dad, Mike, in 1957, the rains were much more predictable. The farm, which lies below the southernmost sweep of the Minnesota River at Mankato and is drained by the Cobb and Maple rivers, used to receive an average 30 to 32 inches of rain per year spread out across the warm-weather months. Peak rainfalls almost always came in June, July and August.
Now heavy rains can occur anytime between April and September – including during key planting and harvesting times – resulting in delays and disruptions for Hager and thousands of other farmers across south central Minnesota. “We used to talk about the 30 inches of rain spread out over the year,” Hager recalls. “Today we’ll get 3 inches of rain all at once, then we won’t get any rain for weeks and weeks.”
Experts say such patterns are consistent with a warming climate across Minnesota, where temperatures are higher, dewpoints are more tropical, and rainfall intensity has increased substantially over recent decades.
Southern Minnesota, for example, experienced three 1,000-year storm events since 2004, according to the Minnesota State Climatology Office, with parts of Blue Earth County receiving between 6 and 10 inches of rain during storm events in August 2007 and September 2010.
Those kinds of rains can turn fields into mud flats and ravines into raging rivers – and the tile drainage systems that are common to Southern Minnesota farms into stormwater conduits that carry not only water, but soil, fertilizer and chemicals off the land. Peak flows also strip away the land itself, carving out new ravines and scouring away natural vegetation that buffer waterways from farm activities.
About 10 years ago, Hager decided he had stood by long enough as stormwater ravaged his farm and threatened his livelihood. He and his father began building earthen berms, grass-covered wiers and other surface structures on the low sides of fields and through natural drainages. Their goal was to slow and trap runoff and waterborne pollution, including sediment, phosphorus and nitrates. The structures helped almost immediately, especially in the bottomland areas that contain some of Half Century Farm’s most productive soils.
Now, instead of losing tons of tons topsoil, along with fertilizer and chemicals, during heavy rains, Hager is slowing the water and allowing the fields to drain laterally across the surface rather than through the subsurface tile drainage system that discharges into local creeks and rivers.
“All those years and years of not understanding what was happening,” he says. “Now we’re trying to catch up.”
Hager isn’t going it alone, nor is his progress in capturing water and nutrients from his farm fields measured by back-of-the-envelope estimates that many farmers have traditionally relied upon to gauge environmental conditions.
Under a public-private program called “Discovery Farms Minnesota,” Hager is working alongside experts from the Minnesota Agricultural Water Resource Center (MAWRC) and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to obtain precise data on how his farm is performing on a number of water quality metrics.
One of Hager’s fields – an 80-acre parcel rotated annually for corn and soybean cultivation – has taken on a second role as a laboratory for studying water dynamics, both at the surface and the sub-surface. At a glance, the field looks no different from the rest of the farm’s loamy landscape, except for a cluster of solar-powered equipment at the field’s edge that might be mistaken for a weather station.
Here, tucked away under sealed lock boxes is a 24-7 high-tech monitoring system that collects data on virtually every drop of water that runs off Hager’s field or discharges from the tile drainage system buried under the surface. Among the measurements taken at field side are water flow rates, suspended sediment levels, and readings for phosphorus, nitrogen, nitrates, chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
Warren Formo, executive director of the MAWRC, describes the monitoring station as a sophisticated “eyes-and-ears operation” that allows Hager and partnering agencies, such as the Minnesota Agriculture Department, to learn precisely how the field is performing under real-world conditions.
“Doug’s job is to farm the way he always has,” Formo says. “The Agriculture Department collects and analyzes the data, and we provide the feedback Doug needs to try to make the best use of his resource.” The relationship, he adds, is intended to be mutually beneficial, not adversarial.
“We’re not judging whether a farmer is a good steward of his land and water,” Formo adds. “We already know he’s concerned about these things because he wouldn’t have joined the program if he weren’t. Our goal is to help good farmers become better farmers.”
In exchange, Formo says, farmers who join the program have to accept that the data collected at their field’s edge is an accurate reflection of what’s happening on their farm and be receptive to adjustments in farm practices that could help improve conditions. Farmers meet annually with program officials to discuss progress, evaluate data collected from test plots, and hash out solutions to ongoing problems.
In Hager’s case, one major management change has been the near elimination of “surface inlets,” essentially drains in the middle of a field, usually at a low spot, where stormwater collects and is channeled to underground drain pipes that remove excess water from the field.
Such inlets have been strongly associated with pollution problems because they carry large amounts of nitrates, phosphorus, sediment and other “undesirable stuff,” as Hager calls it, from field to stream – off the land and into the water.
In fact, innovation in farm drainage – whether by improving traditional tile systems or adopting new practices and technologies – has become a major focus of farmers, agriculture advocacy groups and environmental organizations in recent years, giving rise to a set of practices called “managed drainage” or “conservation drainage.”
One key element of “managed drainage” is raising a farm’s water table through the use of control structures or pumps that allow more stormwater to stay in the soil, where it can be taken up by crops gradually, rather than routed off the field as quickly as possible. The systems are also considered more environmentally sound because they reduce the amount of nitrates and other pollution being diverted to waterways, often by routing water through large wood-chip based biofilters.
Scott Sparlin, executive director of the non-profit Coalition for a Clean Minnesota River, based in New Ulm, Minn., says such systems cost more than conventional tile drainage, but the benefits to both the farmer and the environment are far greater because they raise the soil’s water-holding and water-filtering capacity.
Managed drainage systems, Sparlin says, “run counter to the way traditional drainage systems work, which is draining water 24 hours a day, 365 days per year. What managed drainage does is create a storage system for water right in the soil, so it’s there when you need it.”
But managed drainage systems are expensive, estimated at $1,000 per acre, roughly twice what a conventional tile system costs to install. And Sparlin concedes that many farmers are reluctant to adopt what is essentially a new technology over tried-and-true methods that Minnesota farmers have used for more than a century.
“Just like any group of professionals, farmers tend to stick together and rely on each other’s advice, and they don’t appreciate people from outside telling them how to run their business,” Sparlin says. “Are there some independent-thinking farmers and producers out there that are willing to try something new? Absolutely.” But with managed drainage, it’s still a small number of farmers doing it. “It’s not the mainstream of agriculture,” he adds.
But Sparlin, like Formo of MAWRC, remains optimistic that Minnesota’s farmers are moving in the right direction to protect both their livelihoods and the natural environment.
“It all comes down to awareness and education. Those are the two keys,” says Formo, whose brother still farms family property near Granite Falls, Minn., on the upper reaches of the Minnesota River watershed.
Sparlin, who owns a Christmas tree farm in northern Minnesota and therefore understands what he describes as “the get-rich-slow scheme,” says Minnesota farmers are open to new ideas about water management, but concepts must be proven in the field and economically viable to take hold.
“It’s a big jump economically for most farmers, and it’s also a leap of faith that this is going to work for you,” Sparlin says. “We’ve taken some good first steps, but we’re not going to turn this thing on a dime.”