Denying the Science, Derailing the Solutions

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I talked to a Todd County farmer yesterday who uses 100 percent no-till  and other conservation measures to raise his crops. Conserving soil is important to him, and so he’s quite upset at how mobile humus has been on neighboring farms this fall/early winter. “You know that little skiff of snow we got the other day? Well, eroded soil was already mixing with it and blowing around,” the farmer told me. A Minnesota landscape full of Christmas snirt is a rude reminder that we need to stop arguing over if soil erosion is a problem. It is, and the time for action is upon us.

That Todd County farmer’s story is not the only anecdotal report of increased erosion I’ve heard in recent weeks. It’s no surprise, considering that the mild, dry fall we had provided plenty of opportunities for tillage in September, October and November—maybe even December.

And that tillage may be getting more intense — water quality expert Norm Senjem told me recently that implement dealers in places like southeast Minnesota are reporting that sales of moldboard plows are up. With high commodity prices these days, the slight — if temporary — yield boost one gets from deep tillage is even more attractive.

Intense tillage is up in other parts of the Corn Belt as well—the Illinois Department of Agriculture’s latest statistics show that since 2009 the use of no-till crop production systems in that state has fallen five percentage points to just over 24 percent of fields.

The return of intense tillage in some areas is just one of the troubling pieces of information Senjem shared during our conversation. As we reported in this blog a few months ago, in September he stepped down as the MPCA’s Mississippi River Basin coordinator. In that position, he oversaw research into the source of water quality problems in the watershed, and sought input from farmers, scientists and others on possible solutions.

Much of that research has already been published, and more results are coming in 2012. In general, the data is showing without a doubt that agriculture is playing a significant role in changing the hydrology and water quality of the Minnesota River, and thus the Mississippi downstream. The result has been accelerated sedimentation, which in turn is threatening to end prematurely Lake Pepin’s tenure as an open body of water.

In recent years, Senjem, a former agricultural journalist who has a master’s degree in agricultural economics, has been forthright about the negative role intensive row cropping plays in the Minnesota watershed’s hydrology.

In announcing his resignation from the MPCA, he sent out a letter expressing frustration with how little had been accomplished in cleaning up the basin, and how the leaders within some agricultural commodity groups were unwilling to accept the conclusions of even basic science. As we’ve written here before, the leadership of the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association in particular has a reputation for obstructionism when it comes to dealing with our water quality problems.

In fact, even when compared to its sister organization in Iowa, the MSGA stands out in its unwillingness to acknowledge that ag plays a role in polluted waterways, and thus needs to be a key player in cleaning them up. That’s too bad, since commodity groups could do a lot to promote basic conservation. The 2011 Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll shows a striking number of farmers are unaware of government programs that reward farmers for utilizing conservation practices on working lands.

Couple that with the fact that the USDA is implementing program sign-ups within sometimes ridiculously tight timelines, and no wonder initiatives like the Conservation Stewardship Program are not living up to their potential.

In fact, the USDA just announced that Jan. 13 is the first CSP ranking sign-up deadline of 2012. This is sending NRCS offices and sustainable ag groups like LSP scrambling to get the word out over the holiday season. What if groups like MSGA put some serious energy into alerting its members of this opportunity to get paid for utilizing water- and soil-friendly practices?

But then, that would mean admitting that production agriculture is partially at fault for these problems in the first place, and, as this excerpt of an interview I recently did with Senjem shows, that’s not likely to happen anytime soon (to read the entire conversation, see the most recent issue of the Land Stewardship Letter).:

LSP: One study funded by the Minnesota Soybean Research and Promotion Council and the Minnesota Corn Research and Promotion Council concluded that higher rainfall amounts, natural erosion and dredging, not farming practices, are the major causes of Lake Pepin’s increased sedimentation.
Senjem: Increased rainfall could not account for all that extra sedimentation we are seeing. Geological scientists seem to think it’s a changed hydrology that caused this change and that it was caused by human changes to the landscape, primarily drainage of wetlands and substitution of row crops for perennial vegetation such as prairie, pasture and hay crops. Back in 1945 there were large portions of the Minnesota River that were isolated from the tributaries, and water was allowed to evaporate or soak in.

But after the war, ditch draining and the mechanization of agriculture ramped up. All of those things combined caused a change in the hydrology of the land, and now nearly 100 percent of the land drains into a receiving ditch or tributary today. You have more runoff through the ditch system and the tile system and we’ve doubled the flow at the monitoring station in Jordan [Minn.].

As a result, we’re seeing a lot of stress on the stream system, the river system. All of a sudden you pour more water through the system and there will be impacts, such as more sedimentation.

LSP: Commodity groups such as the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association argue that tile drainage actually reduces soil erosion by sending water underneath the fields rather than over the surface where it can do damage.
Senjem: There’s some truth to the argument that tiling reduces erosion in the fields themselves, since more water will be going down through the soil profile, instead of overland. But then on the other side you have more volume of water going into the river where the tile line empties its load.

In addition, oftentimes when you get high flows coming out of tile lines you get increased erosion through steep ravines. As I mentioned before, this has become a major source of sedimentation. We also have to consider that even if field erosion is dropping in some places, nitrogen concentration in the Mississippi is one thing that tends to be going up and up and up, which is a major water quality problem.

LSP: What response was there from commodity groups when these studies came out?
Senjem: The Minnesota Soybean Association especially, as well as the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, are very reluctant to admit that agriculture has a major role in diminished water quality. The science has made it clear that agriculture actually is the main source.

They’re trying to find cracks in the science and challenge us on things, which is good. But when you’re in the position like I am of solving the problem, and people won’t even acknowledge the basic science behind the issue, then it starts to look like stalling tactics.

It wasn’t like experts in the field were disagreeing. It was leaders in agriculture who were funding their own studies and then saying the science wasn’t settled. We studied this more than any lake or river has been studied in Minnesota. There’s a limit to how much the state can afford to study something. Not all of the papers have been published yet, but it’s pretty clear that agriculture has modified the hydrology and is the main source of this increased sedimentation.

LSP: This sounds similar to the debate over global climate change, where industry claims more research is needed, thus delaying any implementation of solutions.
Senjem: I think there are similarities. Who are you, Joe Citizen, to deny what 97 percent of the scientists says is fact? I’ll admit it does sound like an imposing challenge to reduce sediment by 50 percent, for example. But the state has put a priority on this, and we have money through the Clean Water Fund to put in place some solutions.

But we never got that far because every time we’d have a meeting, the leaders of the commodity groups would say, “The science isn’t settled, we need more research.”

I’d like to make a differentiation between the leaders of these commodity groups, and the rank-and-file-farmers they say they are representing. When I took this position, I felt we could energize 10 to 20 percent of the farmers to adopt innovations and bring about some real improvements in water quality. I learned from agricultural journalism that there’s a very strong component of farmers out there who are interested in innovation.

When I worked for farm magazines like Farm Industry News and The Farmer, I interviewed a lot of farmers out there who were adjusting their tillage equipment, doing innovative things to keep more residue on the ground, tinkering in their shops. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

I grew up on a Dodge County [Minn.] farm and back in the 60s we were adjusting our tillage equipment to help us farm with more residue in the crop fields. We also had a tiling operation, and I recognize that without tiling a good portion of the state wouldn’t be suitable for farming. But like anything, it’s a question of balance. What if we allowed meanders in some of these tributaries to help slow down water and runoff? What if we increased the diversity of our crop rotations? But [commodity group leaders] are too busy arguing against the science.

When people don’t budge an inch and you’ve been working as hard as you can to come up with solutions, and these leaders are the ones the politicians listen to, it gets very frustrating.

LSP: So there are some solutions out there?
Senjem: We don’t have good crop rotations anymore in places like western Minnesota. Some modest diversification of the landscape would help balance the hydrology. Farming practices that build up more organic matter could help increase the water storage capacity of the land and recycle nutrients, thus helping with the nitrogen and phosphorus runoff problem. But the soil science professionals have focused on looking at applying inputs, and not the soil as a living system.

And there are solutions to this problem of tile line outlets causing major ravine erosion. Engineered solutions to this problem can be designed.

LSP: So how do we bring about change?
Senjem: To make it a movement, or an overall trend, you need a bit of a stick. You can see how the 1985 Farm Bill’s conservation cross-compliance provisions were a real driver in changes toward conservation tillage systems. The Farm Bill required farming highly eroded lands according to a conservation plan, and it so happened that often conservation tillage was the most practical way to achieve the erosion targets in the plan.

All of a sudden there was a real spurt of innovation because of these rules that pushed farmers to utilize conservation tillage systems in order to qualify for commodity payments.

And industry got involved as well. I was working for the Case IH implement company’s magazine at the time, and I was asked to do a special section on conservation tillage. Other farm equipment manufacturers like John Deere were doing the same thing. It probably wouldn’t have happened without the stick of cross-compliance.

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