Forever Green, Forever Clean
Clean water is a core Minnesota value. The Forever Green research initiative at the University of Minnesota is developing perennial and cover crops that are both profitable for farmers to grow and drastically improve our water quality.
Unfortunately, on any given weekend this summer, more than 4,600 of Minnesota’s lakes and streams are ”impaired.” Many are no longer deemed safe for swimming or fishing. Nitrates in groundwater from excessive fertilizer use exceed safe-drinking water standards.
The agricultural economy in Minnesota is essential to our way of life, but the current system is also impairing our water quality. Fields are dominated by summer-annual crops such as field corn and soybeans, which soak up most of the available nutrients available during the production season. But the active production season of row crops is just a few months of the year. The majority of the year the fields are barren and inactive. Without active plant root systems to hold soil in place and absorb water, fields are much more vulnerable to wind and water erosion and nutrient run off. Six out of seven (86%) water quality impairments in Minnesota are caused by excess nutrient run off.1
To resolve this, we must diversify our farming systems to include substantially more continuous living cover on the fields. Perennials and cover crops are the next generation of agricultural practices, designed to provide a good economic return for farmers while improving our water quality.
Ongoing funding for long-term research on the development of high-efficiency perennial and cover crop systems is required. Since 2014, the Legislature has provided one-time funding to the University of Minnesota’s Forever Green Initiative, which has been successful in the first stages of developing Minnesota’s next generation crops, such as perennial crops like intermediate wheat grass and cover crops like pennycress. Crops like these have extensive root systems that prevent runoff into lakes, rivers, and streams and they provide continuous living cover on the land. They also improve soil quality by replenishing nutrients and don’t require expensive fertilizers. In addition, many of the crops being developed have forage value, helping get more livestock back on the land in ways that improve water quality.
Key to this program’s success, however, is consistent, ongoing funding to do the necessary research over multiple growing seasons. This public investment is needed to produce the public good of clean water.
To reach our clean water future:
Provide long-term funding to advance the University of Minnesota’s Forever Green Initiative, accelerating the development of economically viable cover crops and perennial crops that enhance water quality, soil health, and habitat while providing an economic return for farmers. Full funding is $5 million per year.