A Graphic View of Diversity’s Power

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A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a good infographic can be the equivalent of thousands of pounds of soil. That thought occurred to me recently while viewing the cool illustration below. Produced by scientists who are studying the effects of adding some targeted diversity to row-cropped fields in central Iowa, it tells a clear, and important, story: converting just 10 percent of a corn or soybean field to native prairie can cut the amount of eroded soil that leaves a field by over 5,000 pounds per acre—a 95 percent reduction.

As we’ve discussed in this blog before, the STRIPS team and the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture have done some extremely innovative research the past half-dozen years proving you can get a pretty big bang for your conservation buck by strategic placement of patches of prairie in row-cropped fields. As this graphic, which is part of a new STRIPS publication, shows, besides reducing erosion dramatically, this targeted conservation can slash the amount of phosphorus and nitrogen that leaves the field by 90 percent and 84 percent, respectively.

Such reductions in fertilizer runoff should be of particular interest to Midwesterners who care about clean water, given recent reports of nitrogen pollution being at sky-high levels, both throughout the Mississippi River basin as well as right here in Minnesota. And as I witnessed firsthand while visiting the STRIPS research site in Iowa last summer, those prairie plants are providing critical habitat for grassland birds and pollinating insects—that latter benefit is becoming even more critical with each new media report of the demise of the honey bee.

Graphic representations of the dramatic results targeted conservation can produce are important as scientists attempt to take this innovation beyond the test plot and get it established on working farms throughout the region. One farmer in southwest Iowa is already experimenting with prairie strips, and 14 more have shown strong interest in adopting the practice.

The Land Stewardship Project is examining how prairie strips could be used by farmers we’re working with in western Minnesota’s Chippewa River watershed and in the Root River basin, in the southeastern part of the state.

I and other LSP staffers, as well as members, have visited the STRIPS site and seen firsthand just how much of a difference a little diversity in an otherwise mono-cropped field can make. It’s quite striking, especially when one considers that the fields which are part of this research are already being managed using a no-till system—a soil-friendly technique that unfortunately is starting to show signs of not always being able to withstand onslaughts of extreme climate events.

But not every conservationist, agronomist or farmer can visit the STRIPS research site. That’s why infographics like this are so key. As Gary Van Ryswyk, the farmer who is raising crops in the original research plot, told me last summer, he really didn’t think the strips would make that much difference until be saw the results firsthand.

“I was one of these guys who didn’t think we were losing that much soil. I was shocked at how much was being lost,” he said while examining a pile or eroded soil near a collection flume. “One of the big barriers is, like me, most farmers truly believe they aren’t losing as much soil as they really are.”


Demand versus need in Minnesota’s oil pipelines

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The Midwest and Great Lakes are quickly becoming a hub for transporting and refining one of the world’s dirtiest and most destructive fossil fuels on the planet: tar sands oil.

Pipelines in the area are nothing new, but over the last several years the region’s infrastructure has seen a dramatic transformation (more…)

Sand, Land & Land Stewardship

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By Johanna Rupprecht, Land Stewardship Project

For longer than I can remember, my family has taken the same route from our farm in southeast Minnesota to visit my grandparents in north-central Wisconsin. The first leg of the four-hour trip takes us across the Mississippi River and through the farmland, pastures and rolling, wooded hills of Trempealeau and Jackson Counties. The landmarks and scenery along every mile of the route have become deeply familiar to us over countless trips in all seasons.

So the sight that greeted me on a trip in the spring of 2012 was shocking and brutal in its unfamiliarity. East of the village of Blair — just a mile or two down the road from the slope on which we had once counted a flock of over 40 wild turkeys — a section of the hills was gone. The trees had been torn down, the land ripped open, and pale silica sand dug out and piled up in mounds almost as large as the hills they had once been. These piles of sand waited to be processed and shipped away to other states, to be pumped deep into the ground, along with undisclosed chemicals and massive amounts of water, in the process of hydraulic fracturing to obtain oil and gas.

This was the first frac sand mine I had ever seen in person. Since then, I’ve seen many more. Some of them were gaping wounds in landscapes I never had the privilege of seeing when they were whole, so I could only imagine, not remember, the hills or bluffs they used to be. The sense of the fundamental wrongness of this desecration of the land has never left me. I have also seen rural roads and tiny villages overrun with an endless stream of trucks hauling frac sand. I have seen sand mining, processing and shipping being done with no meaningful measures in place to protect innocent neighbors from exposure to dust that contains deadly crystalline silica.

For all these reasons and many more, people across our region have been moved to take action together to fight the frac sand industry. When southeast Minnesota first began to face the threat of a proposed onslaught of frac sand mining two and half years ago, citizens here called on the Land Stewardship Project to take a stand. As I’ve led our local organizing on this issue for the past 16 months, it’s become ever more clear to me that both our members and our mission have called LSP into the frac sand fight. The idea of destroying the land by strip-mining it for frac sand is fundamentally opposed to the stewardship ethic we seek to foster. And the frac sand industry represents precisely the kind of corporate-driven exploitation of the land, people and rural communities that our organization has stood against throughout our history. Moreover, LSP and our members understand that other ways are possible. Farmers like my own family, or like southeast Minnesotan Bob Christie — who was told by a mining company that the land he farms and loves was merely “overburden” in the way of sand — know that people can make a living on the land without destroying it.

The scale of the threat we face from this new industry means we must work to combat it on many fronts and in many ways. During the 2013 session of the Minnesota Legislature, members of LSP and other groups traveled to the capitol in Saint Paul by the busload, again and again, to fight for strong legislation to restrict the frac sand industry. On a hot summer night last July, 100 people packed into a church hall in Rushford, Minn., to focus on the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) ordered on 11 proposed mines. From the comments at that gathering, LSP compiled the People’s EIS Scoping Report, a grassroots document we have released widely to make certain that the voices of directly impacted local residents are heard as the EIS is carried out. Knowing from long experience that strong local democracy can be the best protection against harmful, corporate-backed developments, LSP is also working to combat the frac sand industry at the local government level. We have held trainings to help people understand and practice their rights, and I am working with residents in townships heavily targeted by the industry to build the power to protect their communities with local ordinances. Recently we have begun to work with members and allies in Wisconsin to fight the frac sand industry in that state as well.

Most recently, over 225 people from across our region braved a snowstorm in January to gather at LSP’s Citizens’ Frac Sand Summit in Winona, Minn. There we launched a new petition drive as part of the next phase of our state-level work to protect the land and people from frac sand mining. We also discussed the importance of fighting attempts to weaken local democracy in Wisconsin— something the frac sand industry is pushing hard for.

Working together, organized people have already had much success. But there is a long fight still ahead. The sand in our hills and bluffs is desired by Big Energy, one of the most powerful industries the world has ever seen. No matter how many front groups, middlemen or subsidiaries may be involved, frac sand mining ultimately exists for the benefit of the oil and gas industry. These extreme energy corporations haul away profits while leaving behind costs that must be paid by society for generations to come. The sand mined in the Midwest enables the hydraulic fracturing that is devastating other rural communities in places like North Dakota and Pennsylvania, all for the extraction of more and more fossil fuels, threatening all our communities through global climate change.

I am continually inspired by the dedication and commitment of the people I have come to know through these past months of organizing—people whose love for the land and their communities drives them to keep coming together again and again, building and sharing hope, courage and power. If you have not already begun to take action with us against the frac sand industry, then I urge you to join this fight today. Standing together, we can protect our communities and the land.

Organizer Johanna Rupprecht is based in LSP’s office in Lewiston, Minn., where she grew up on a crop and livestock farm. She can be reached at 507-523-3366 or jrupprecht@landstewardshipproject.org.

Forever Green & Highly Efficient Agriculture

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To understand why the Forever Green Initiative is so important to the future of Minnesota’s landscape, one has to consider this: there is a big difference between agricultural productivity and agricultural efficiency. In states like Minnesota, the spectacular productivity of our corn-soybean system is evident: bin busting yields are the norm. But there’s a lot of waste underlying all that productivity.

“We just don’t think the current system is efficient,” says Don Wyse, a professor in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics and the co-director of the Center for Integrated Natural Resources and Agricultural Management.

One of the reasons this production system is so inefficient is that it relies on a raising a few annual summer crops, which cover the land only a few months out of the year. That means for eight months or more, around half of Minnesota lacks any living roots or green ground cover — creating a long bare season. During this brown period, the land is particularly vulnerable to erosion and precipitation runs off the land, carrying with it fertilizers and other chemicals that were not used during the growing season. That’s one reason nitrogen pollution of Minnesota’s water is at such extremely high levels, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Wyse says such a system is not only wasteful but doesn’t utilize agriculture’s ability to provide key ecosystem services such as keeping pollutants out of water, building soil health, sequestering greenhouse gases and providing wildlife habitat. It also limits economic options for farmers.

“If you stick with the crops that we have now, which are all summer annuals, you won’t be able to produce those ecosystem services,” says Wyse on LSP’s Ear to the Ground podcast. “But if you want a more efficient system, one that produces these ecosystem services, we have to fund the development of a different type of plant system.”

Such a system would cover the land 12 months out of the year. We had this year-round armor back in the day—it was called the tallgrass prairie. We will probably never see the return of such a diverse, sustainable ecosystem on a widespread basis. But Wyse and the other researchers working on the Forever Green Initiative believe they can bring some “functional diversity” back into the landscape by integrating soil-friendly annuals and perennials into the traditional corn-soybean rotation.

“No, these are not native plants, but they are certainly a step forward in providing these ecosystem services,” says Wyse. “Agriculture, I don’t care what it is, it’s a huge human footprint. But we might be able to modify that footprint in a way that makes the system more efficient and more environmentally sound.”

The idea of protecting the land during the corn and soybean “off season” is nothing new to anyone who is familiar with cover crops. In fact, recent attention to rebuilding farmland’s soil health has generated some excitement over the role small grains, brassicas and other “low value” plant systems can play in bringing resiliency back to our fields. But as a recent Forever Green report illustrates, this initiative is trying to take cover cropping several steps ahead agronomically and economically.

And we’re not exactly talking about plant systems that are household names in the Upper Midwest. For example, field pennycress, an annual crop that overwinters, can be seeded after corn or soybeans are harvested in the fall. It provides protection for soil during the fall, winter and spring and produces high-value oil and protein meal from unused fertilizer and water that would otherwise be wasted. It also naturally suppresses weeds and supports honeybees and other pollinators. The U of M has already mapped the genome of pennycress and is using that information to try and create lines that can produce consistent yields of oil and feed in our climate.

Intermediate wheatgrass is another work in progress that holds a lot of potential. Southwest Minnesota farmer Carmen Fernholz has been growing a two-acre test plot of the perennial grass for the past three years in collaboration with Forever Green and the Land Institute. He says it grows over five feet high and since it is so similar to native grasses in his area he knows the root system is deep and extensive. That’s important to Fernholz, who does whatever he can to build soil health on his 400-acre organic crop farm.

“We’re going to have to do something to improve soil properties because we are in fact losing that diversity of soil microbes a healthy system needs,” says Fernholz, who regularly uses rye and other traditional cover crops as part of his rotation. “We do have to accept the fact that agriculture is a soil disturbance process. My goal on my own farm is to minimize that disturbance while staying economically viable.”

The farmer says intermediate wheatgrass has that potential to balance environmental health with economic viability—it could be a source of livestock forage, biomass feedstock, even grain.

On the other hand, he’s noticed how the seed head falls off and shatters before maturing. He’s excited to see how Forever Green research could solve this problem, as well as help develop shade- and drought-tolerant cover crop varieties that would do well when planted right in the rows of a growing corn or soybean field. Innovations in seed varieties as well as field equipment are needed if cover cropping is to work in Minnesota’s short growing season, says Fernholz

Pennycress and wheatgrass are examples of innovations that have come a long way as a result of research resources Wyse and his associates have been able to patch together in recent years. But now it’s time to take the next steps.

“We’ve brought things like this far enough along that I can look anyone in the eye and say, ‘These projects are worth the investment,’ ” says Wyse. “I can’t tell you which ones are going to fail and which are going to be successful, but here’s a core of six or seven projects that are worthy of additional investment for the next five years.”

Part of the reason Forever Green requires long-term investment is because it’s not just a typical research project that takes a narrow, agronomic view of how to improve cover cropping. There’s no doubt the ability of pennycress and wheatgrass to protect the land during the brown season is a plus, but, as Fernholz implies, such alternatives will never catch on unless farmers find them profitable to raise. 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, which are called “Landlabs,” would help overcome the “chicken or the egg” barriers that often plague innovations in agriculture. What incentive do farmers have to plant a new crop of 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?

Landlabs are an attempt to coordinate all of these steps in a way that farmers and other links in the chain aren’t taking on all the initial risk of trying something innovative. The Landlab concept is what sets Forever Green apart from other research initiatives that simply look at how to produce a higher yielding crop—this is a big picture, integrated approach to dealing with the issue of creating diversity on the land.

That’s why Forever Green will require consistent funding over a number of years if it is to be successful. That means an investment of public dollars. After all, it was public funding that helped spawn the revolution in Minnesota corn and soybean production during the 20th Century.

The 2014 Minnesota Legislature has a prime opportunity to provide a major boost to high-efficiency agriculture.The Minnesota Senate Omnibus Finance Bill has funding for the Forever Green Initiative at $1.15 million. The money comes from the Clean Water Fund, which has unused funds even after keeping a 5 percent reserve. The Clean Water Fund is the money from the Legacy Amendment passed by voters in 2008 which dedicates a portion of the sales tax to cleaning up Minnesota’s waters. Forever Green would be an excellent use of that money.

This week, the Senate and House Omnibus Finance bills are in conference committee, and out of that committee will come the final funding legislation. The House bill does not spend any Clean Water Funds and keeps the reserves at the unnecessarily high level of 7 percent. The House must simply agree to the Senate proposal to spend part of the unused Clean Water Funds on Forever Green at $1.15 million.

This is a key time for key House leaders and even Governor Mark Dayton to hear from people who would like to see a highly efficient agriculture that produces more than a handful of raw commodities a few months out of the year. Forever Green is the kind of land grant research that can help our state’s agriculture live up to its true potential. For details on how to make your voice heard immediately, see the Land Stewardship Project’s action alert.

“This isn’t just about one crop—this is about getting more cover on the land and feeding the livestock in our soil,” says Fernholz.