Forever Green: Relaying Resiliency

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Ott is part of an innovative U of M research initiative that is out to prove environmental sustainability and financial viability can go hand-in-hand.

The Forever Green Agriculture Initiative is an ambitious, multidisciplinary approach to getting more continuous living cover on the land in that “brown period” when regular cash crops aren’t growing. That’s a big deal, considering that Minnesota’s top row crops, corn and soybeans, cover the land for only a few months out of the year. That means for six months or more, around half of Minnesota lacks any living roots or even basic vegetative ground cover, creating a long bare season during which the land is particularly prone to being washed and blown away. The most recent sign that this lack of cover is taking a toll on the land is all of the “snirt” that stained Minnesota snowbanks this past winter.

Forever Green funding provided by the Minnesota Legislature in 2014 (see sidebar to the right) has moved the initiative ahead significantly in just the past several months, according to Michael Schmitt, associate dean of the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences. Schmitt says legislative funding has made possible innovative research on, among other things, pennycress, intermediate wheatgrass, kura clover, hybrid hazelnuts and camelina.

Just as importantly, says Schmitt, it has also given numerous graduate students invaluable experience in doing cutting-edge agricultural research, helping develop a new generation of agricultural scientists.

Cover Cropping’s Public Service

Green pennycress was evident at a U of M test plot on March 13, 2015, soon after the snow had melted. (Photo courtesy of the University of Minnesota)

Green pennycress was evident at a U of M test plot on March 13, 2015, soon after the snow had melted. (Photo courtesy of the University of Minnesota)

Studies throughout the Midwest have shown that growing low-value cover crops such as small grains before and after the main cash crop season can dramatically cut erosion and runoff while building overall soil health.

“The literature is very robust on the ecosystem services provided by cover crops,” says U of M graduate student and Forever Green researcher Michelle Dobbratz. She’s seen some of these services firsthand through her research integrating kura clover as a “living mulch” into row crop systems. A living mulch grows between the rows of crops like corn for several years in a row, providing a year-round companion cover while building soil structure. Dobbratz said she has already observed how living mulches help fields she studies soak up heavy rains during storm events, while neighboring unmulched crop fields are flooded.

“Farmers are increasingly demanding risk management and resiliency from their fields,” says Dobbratz.

And according to surveys and anecdotal evidence, farmers across the country are finding that cover crops can build the kind of soil resiliency that helps cash crops better weather extreme conditions such as drought while reducing the need for expensive commercial fertilizers.

But such economic benefits are not as immediate and direct as bin-busting yields. Integrating cover crops into a corn-soybean system costs money and can be logistically tricky. In states like Minnesota, conditions often make for a narrow window of opportunity for planting and establishing something on the edges of a standard growing season.

That’s why the Forever Green initiative is taking a multi-faceted approach to developing systems that provide the land protection 12 months out of the year, according to Don Wyse, a U of M plant scientist who is helping lead the initiative. Not only is Forever Green trying to develop soil-friendly plant varieties that can grow and produce well “outside” of the traditional growing season, but working to figure out how to develop marketable products from cover crops, in effect giving farmers an economic incentive to plant what up until now has been seen as a economically “useless” class of commodities.

Relay Cropping

For example, one of the crops Forever Green is experimenting with is field pennycress, an extremely winter-hardy member of the mustard family that provides soil protection, uses up excess nitrogen, cuts erosion and suppresses weeds in the spring. Actually, there are numerous cover crops that provide such services. But pennycress also produces an oilseed that can be used in biofuel, among other things, and a processing byproduct can be used for animal feed.

According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, pennycress could potentially be grown on over 40 million U.S. corn and soybean acres without displacing those crops. That amount of acreage would yield up to six billion gallons of oil that could be converted to biodiesel—that represents roughly 15 percent of the 40 billion gallons or diesel consumed annually in this country.

And because pennycress begins flowering in April or May when honeybee colonies are returning to the Upper Midwest, it can provide critical food for domesticated and wild pollinators at a time when other flowers are hard to come by.

Wyse describes a scenario where a farmer could plant pennycress in the fall after corn harvest, allowing it to overwinter. The idea is to create a continuous living cover on the land through a kind of plant “relay” system where the growing seasons of two crops overlap—as one crop is winding down for the season, another is just getting started. Forever Green trials have shown soybeans can be planted into pennycress in May and then the cover crop’s oilseed is harvested in June, making way for the soybeans to grow the rest of the season.

“So that extends both seasons,” says Wyse.

That overlap can not only produce dividends for a well-protected soil, but it can increase the land’s ability to produce profitability 12 months out of the year, something scientists call “temporal intensification.” Studies show that growing pennycress and soybeans together increases by 40 percent an acre’s overall production of oilseeds (60 bushels per acre of soybeans, 40 bushels of pennycress, for example). One estimate is that pennycress can add an extra $300 of per-acre profit to a soybean field.

“And so instead of just planting a cover crop for the long-term environmental benefits, the farmer can have some rapidly realized economic returns,” says Kayla Altendorf, a graduate student working on a pennycress breeding project.

Intelligent Tinkering

Forever Green researchers are benefiting from recent major strides made in identifying and selecting which parts of the plant DNA can produce desired characteristics. When there are multiple genes controlling a certain trait in a plant, it’s not clear the level of dominance each trait has when cross-breeding takes place. But mapping the genome of a plant can help pinpoint what best combinations will produce the desired outcome. Fortunately, pennycress and camelina are very closely related to arabidopsis, the first plant to have its entire genome sequenced.

Kevin Dorn, a U of M doctoral student doing genomic research on pennycress, says just a decade ago it would have cost tens of millions of dollars to use DNA sequencing to improve a plant species like pennycress. Dorn and others, using pennycress they harvested from a roadside south of the Twin Cities, recently mapped the plant’s genome for around $75,000.

According to a 2014 article in the journal Plant Science, affordable genome sequencing technologies and advanced breeding techniques have reduced the time scale it takes to domesticate a new crop from hundreds or thousands of years, to decades. The map Dorn and his team created is helping make it possible to select varieties that, for example, flower earlier or don’t produce seed pods that shatter as easily during harvest (a common problem with pennycress). Once these traits are identified, then plants can be bred and propagated through traditional breeding methods, which means researchers don’t have to rely on controversial genetic engineering technologies to produce the next generation of plants.

“We can do in eight years what you may have been able to do in classical breeding in maybe 50 to 100,” says Wyse. “Give us 10 years of solid funding and this Forever Green group can make a difference.”

And consistent financial support is critical if Forever Green is to advance to the point where farmers can benefit from it, says Wyse. He adds that more cropping trials need to be established in different parts of the state so that comparisons can be made between soils, weather conditions and topography.

Another reason Forever Green requires long-term investment is because it’s not just taking a narrow, agronomic view of how to improve cover cropping. How can the market value match the environmental value of these crops? Forever Green proposes doing this by developing incubators across the state that would coordinate the technological, economic and even policy innovations needed to make alternative crops a consistent part of the farming picture.

These incubators could help overcome the “chicken or the egg” barriers that often plague innovations in agriculture. What incentive do farmers have to plant a new crop if there is no market for it? And even if there is a market, what if there are no processing and transportation systems available to get the product from the field to the end user?

These are big-picture questions that require working across disciplines that cover everything from plant genetics and breeding to mechanical engineering of tillage and harvesting equipment. Even food science and marketing have to be part of the picture, says Wyse.

And that’s possibly the most exciting aspect of Forever Green— land grant university research can often suffer from the “silo effect,” where scientists working in different, but related, disciplines don’t know what’s going on in the next lab or test plot. Such a myopic way of operating can be particularly keen as competition for limited funding increases.

But several of the researchers working on the Forever Green initiative describe how the interdisciplinary nature of the effort is allowing them to shorten significantly the time required to get basic science to the practical, on-the-farm stage. Dobbratz, the kura clover researcher, says such border crossing is key if it’s to help solve the “grand challenge” facing society: how to feed people sustainably.

“You can’t just exist in your own little lab anymore,” she says. “I think our team is keenly aware of the need for boundary work—that is the need for working across different disciplines. None of us have a hero complex—we’re aware that we’re one tiny piece of a larger puzzle.”

News Watch: Mar. 23

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Today’s Topics: Agriculture & Food; Climate Change; Energy; Frac Sand Mining; Legislature & Agency; Oil & Pipelines; Outdoor Recreation; Transportation; Water; Wildlife; 

Agriculture & Food
 
Climate Change
 
Energy
 
Frac Sand Mining
Rochester Post Bulletin: Can Houston County enforce mine rules? 
 
Legislature & Agency 
 
Oil & Pipelines
 
Outdoor Recreation
 
Transportation
 
Water
 
Wildlife

News Watch: Mar. 20

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Today’s Topics: Agriculture & Food; Air Quality; Climate Change; Energy; Mining; Oil & Pipelines; Parks & Trails; Transportation; Water; Wildlife;

Agriculture & Food
 
Air Quality
 
Climate Change
 
Energy
Duluth News Tribune: Our View: Renewable energy finding love in Minn. featuring MEP member group Conservation Minnesota 
 
Mining
 
Oil & Pipelines
 
Parks & Trails
 
Transportation
 
Water
 
Wildlife

MEP’s summarized testimony on bill that would modify the duties of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Citizens’ Board

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On March 12, 2015, Minnesota Environmental Partnership’s executive director Steve Morse delivered testimony summarized below regarding a new bill that would modify the duties of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Citizens’ Board. In his testimony, he emphasizes the importance of keeping the essential duties of Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Citizens’ Board as is for a number of reasons. He warns lawmakers that removing citizen oversight of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is akin to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Listen to Steve’s Testimony here. It begins at 2hr 18min and runs through 2hr 24min

Summarized testimony delivered by Steve Morse
Executive Director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Delivered before the

Minnesota House Environment & Natural Resources Policy & Finance Committee

on the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Citizens’ Board duties modified (H.F. 1394)

 March 12, 2015

Summarized Testimony – Minnesotans cherish our natural resources and take pride in our outdoor heritage. I believe that we are fundamentally in agreement on that. The involvement of citizens in the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s process has a productive and positive impact for a wide range of folks. It makes sense to have citizen oversight of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and this bill throws the baby out with the bathwater. I would like to make a few points about why I think this legislation would be a mistake: 

  • The citizens board the way it is structured now is good for citizens. It gives them a significant place at the table in the decision-making process. 
  • The citizens board is good for the MPCA because there is a citizen ground truthing check that impacts the entire administrative process. 
  • The citizens board is good for regulated industries because it serves as a transparent safety valve when there are contentious issues. 
  • Citizen involvement is a fundamental part of environmental protection and conservation activities. Environmental protection is almost always driven by citizen engagement on the front end. 
  • The citizens board stands the test of time – it has worked for nearly 50 years. We fundamentally think it makes the process healthier and more open and we get better protection of our resources in a cost-effective and efficient way. 

In summary, we would argue that the citizens’s board is good all the way around. Even though it may take a little longer to work through specific cases it is overall a good investment of time for the reasons stated above. Our partnership feels very strongly that to pass this bill would be an erosion of some of the bedrock environmental policies that we have in the state. It would be an erosion of public participation and we hope the committee will not move it forward. Again, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

News Watch: Mar. 16

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Today’s Topics: Agriculture & Food; Biofuels; Climate Change; Energy; Frac Sand Mining; Invasive Species; Mining; Oil & Pipelines; Parks & Trails; Outdoor Recreation; Transportation; Waste & Recycling; Water; Wildlife;

Agriculture & Food
 
Biofuels
 
Climate Change
 
Energy
 
Frac Sand Mining
 
Invasive Species
 
Mining
 
Oil & Pipelines
 
Parks & Trails 
 
Transportation
 
Waste & Recycling
 
Water
 
Wildlife
 

News Watch: Mar. 12

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Today’s Topics: Agriculture & Food; Clean Power Plan; Climate Change; Energy; Environmental Movement; Forests; Forests; Invasive Species; Frac Sand Mining; Land; Mining; Oil & Pipelines; Outdoor Recreation; Transportation; Waste & Recycling; Water; 

Agriculture & Food
 
Clean Power Plan
Star Tribune:  Your Voices: Why would we slow the growth of clean energy businesses written by Paul Austin of MEP member group Conservation Minnesota 
 
Climate Change
 
Energy
 
Environmental Movement
 
Frac Sand Mining
 
Land
 
Mining
 
Oil & Pipelines
Outdoor Recreation
 
Transportation
 
Waste & Recycling
 
Water
MPR: ‘Aggressive’ plan aims to separate crops from waterways featuring Steve Woods from MEP member group Freshwater Society and Don Arnosti of MEP member group Izaak Walton League MN
 

News Watch: Mar. 9

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Today’s Topics: Agriculture & Food; Air Quality; Climate Change; Conservation; Energy; Forests; Forests; Invasive Species; Mining; Oil & Pipelines; Transportation; Water;

Agriculture & Food
 
Air Quality
 
Climate Change
 
Conservation
 
Energy
 
Forests
 
Invasive Species
 
Mining
 
Oil & Pipelines
 
Transportation
 
Water

6 Black Environmental Activists Who Changed History

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Many consider leaders like Al Gore and Rachel Carson to be the faces of modern environmentalism. However, equally important are the leaders of the American environmental justice movement, which was born out of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and has since been carried on by people of color and Indigenous People from around the world. This week, we are profiling a small selection of the thousands of activists, scientists, and scholars who have dedicated their lives to solving the problems that lie at the nexus of environmental injustice, racism and sexism at a local, national and international level.

Rose Brewer

Dr. Rose Brewer is a professor of African-American and African Studies at the University of Minnesota. She has published dozens of journal articles and book chapters on environmental racism, the prison-industrial complex, black feminism, and other complex, intersectional issues. She has said that her work in environmental justice is “deeply connected to an African-rooted value system.” She is currently the chair of the board of Environmental Justice Advocates of Minnesota, a group of activists and community leaders dedicated to supporting fair and sustainable local economies that promote access to safe environments for everyone. Brewer was involved in organizing the Black Environmental Thought conference in Minneapolis in 2012.

LaDonna Redmond

LaDonna Redmond is an established food justice activist who began her career in advocacy after encountering a lack of healthy, fresh and pesticide-free food in her neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago. She has worked with the public school system to get junk food out of cafeteria lunches and healthy options into food deserts – but she recognizes that “Food justice is not just about nutrition.” Redmond challenges food producers and consumers to examine the inequalities in the food system and seek solutions that don’t impinge on the rights of immigrant laborers or people of color living in low-income communities. Recently she introduced the Campaign for Food Justice Now, and currently works as the Education and Outreach Coordinator at Seward Co-Op’s Friendship site.

Watch her TedxManhattan talk here.

Sam Grant

Sam Grant is a faculty member at Metropolitan State University and a community organizer in the Twin Cities who has used his personal experience of racism and environmental injustice to fuel his lifelong work as a social activist. Grant co-founded AfroEco, a Minneapolis-based grassroots non-profit organization connecting sustainable food to cultural skills among African immigrants. He was a member of the Neighborhoods Organizing for Change coalition that defeated a Hennepin

County proposal to increase garbage burning at an incinerator in their community, which led to City of Minneapolis composting and recycling initiatives. He serves on the Executive Committee of the Sierra Club North Star Chapter.

Robert Bullard

Robert Bullard is the Dean of the School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University, an academic and activist, and is considered the “father of environmental justice” by scholars in the field. He conducted the first comprehensive study of ecoracism in 1979, finding that toxic waste sites in Houston were disproportionately located in black neighborhoods. In 2014, the Sierra Club established the Robert Bullard Environmental Justice Award to honor individuals or organizations doing outstanding work on environmental justice.

Tyrone Hayes

Tyrone Hayes is an integrative biologist at the University of California Berkeley whose research on the effects of pesticides on frogs has led him to a career in environmental advocacy. After agrochemical company Syngenta attempted to block his findings that the pesticide atrazine caused cancer in certain organisms, Hayes responded by publishing and presenting hundreds of papers, seminars, and talks linking pesticide use to declining amphibian populations and chemical exposure to areas with low-income and minority families. His research was used in a 2012 lawsuit against Syngenta, in which the company agreed to reimburse water-processing plants about $105 million for the cost of filtering atrazine from drinking water.

Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai was the Kenyan founder of the Green Belt Movement, a grassroots NGO that combines ecofeminism with community development to combat deforestation. The premise is simple – mobilizing women to plant trees – but the benefits have been manifold, and have included providing habitat for wildlife, fuel sources for rural communities, and a solution to soil erosion and desertification. The trees also became a symbol of peace and democracy for the democratic struggle in Kenya. Since 1977, when Maathai established the movement, Kenyan women have planted over 51 million trees. The Green Belt Movement’s scope has since grown to include environmental activism and capacity building to train women in trades that help them maintain independence while preserving natural resources in their community. In 2014, she was the first African woman awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Maathai’s message about individual activism is very inspiring.

News Watch: Mar. 2

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Today’s Topics: Agriculture & Food; Air Quality; Boundary Waters; Climate Change; Energy; Forests; Legislature & Agency; Mining; Oil & Pipelines; Outdoor Recreation; Parks & Trails; Transportation; Waste & Recycling; Water; Wildlife; 

Agriculture & Food
Environmental Working Group: What About Farm Subsidy Fraud? 
 
Air Quality
 
Boundary Waters
 
Climate Change
 
Energy
 
Forests
 
Legislature & Agency
 
Mining
 
Oil & Pipelines
 
Outdoor Recreation
 
Parks & Trails
 
Transportation
 
Waste & Recycling
 
Water
Star Tribune: Commentary: Minnesota legislators put politics above public health written by Paul Austin of MEP member group Conservation Minnesota 
 
Wildlife
Associated Press: Bird-eye view: See a baby eagle (In MPR