Report shows new crops’ benefits for farms, water

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Earlier this month, MEP member organization Friends of the Mississippi River (FMR) released a new report on one of the most promising solutions to Minnesota’s water quality problems: continuous living cover on our farmland from fall to spring. “Putting Down Roots” is a landmark report that analyzes the benefits of these solutions, showing in detail how they will help Minnesota improve our environment and our farming economy at the same time.

It’s no secret that Minnesota’s water is in trouble. In certain agricultural parts of the state, especially the Southeast, communities and residents who rely on well water are grappling with contamination from nitrate, a nutrient used in fertilizer which can cause birth defects and has been linked to various cancers. Lakes and rivers across the state have turned inhospitable to fish and wildlife due to nitrate and other agricultural nutrients, like phosphorus. Much of those nutrients flows downstream and enters the Mississippi, where they contribute to the annual dead zone – devoid of aquatic life – in the Gulf of Mexico.

We need to solve these challenges at the source, and that means stopping as much fertilizer as possible from draining into our groundwater and rivers. But it doesn’t mean that we have to stop crop production on the land or reduce the income of farmers. Instead, we can introduce new crops, bred here in Minnesota, that, in many cases, can coexist with current crops while providing environmental and economic benefits.

The FMR report is a first-of-its-kind analysis of how implementing these new crops on a wide scale could help drastically reduce nitrate runoff, build healthier soil, and provide farmers with increased income – not cuts – from implementing greener practices.

The root of the problem

About half of Minnesota’s land area is used for agriculture, and most of that goes to summer annual row crops, especially corn and soybeans. These crops are planted from seed in the spring, meaning they are slow to develop and provide ground cover, and harvested in the fall. This results in the land being covered in protective green tops and roots for less than half the year. For the remainder, it’s left brown and uncovered and susceptible to leaching and runoff.

That uncovered ground, in the late fall and spring, devoid of root systems or greenery to help make the soil healthy and porous, is a direct path for nutrient loss from fertilizer, which is often applied in the fall. When rain falls or snow melts, nutrients seep into the groundwater below or run off into ditches Those nutrients infiltrate the aquifers and can cause problems for people and wildlife for decades to come.

The key to solving the problem is bringing the benefits the land enjoys in the summer to the colder months. That’s the idea behind the University of Minnesota’s Forever Green Initiative, which has worked on crops like winter oilseeds, Kernza, and others that can fill this niche while still producing marketable food and fuel.

Some of these crops, including the oilseeds, augment corn and soybeans, growing in the late fall and surviving through the winter to then quickly resume growth in the very early spring for early summer harvest. These crops are usually rapidly growing before farm equipment can even make it into the spring fields. Soybeans can be planted into these winter oilseeds, such as Winter Camelina, in the spring, so they are ready to “take off” once the Camelina is harvested. Others, like Kernza, replace other row crops and remain on the field year-round for multiple years. Both types provide the benefit of long-term soil protection and removal of nutrients from runoff thanks to their robust root systems and growing green cover during the time of year that  using only conventional crops leaves the fields bare.

MEP and partners like FMR have identified Forever Green as a source of clean water solutions for years, and we’ve worked together successfully to advocate for state funding for the program. But we’ve never had a comprehensive picture of the benefits of Forever Green until “Putting Down Roots.”

What’s new in the report

The team members – including MEP Executive Director Steve Morse – and advisors behind the report began from a well-established starting point: continuous living cover cropping systems can benefit water quality, soil health, and farmers’ livelihoods. “Putting Down Roots” answers the question “by how much?”

The short answer is: quite a bit. According to the team’s analysis, a medium-adoption scenario for these cropping systems on Minnesota farmland through 2050 would reduce nitrogen loss into ditches or groundwater by 23%, reduce soil erosion by 35%, and increase on-farm net financial returns by 20%.

The winter oilseeds receive special attention, as their integration with corn and soybeans, along with their vast economic potential, make them attractive options to farmers. The Putting Down Roots report estimates that by 2050, it’s likely that we’ll see five and a half million acres in Minnesota covered by these crops from fall to spring.

The oilseeds include camelina, which the Star Tribune recently profiled as one of Minnesota’s best hopes. Their uses are many, including animal feed, bioplastics, diesel and jet fuel. Tthey’re likely to be a key piece of the puzzle in climate-friendly transportation. A number of companies are already interested in scaling up these crops to meet their evolving needs.

The report does not account for reductions in phosphorus runoff, but it’s likely that phosphorus would improve on a similar path to nitrate thanks to the live roots of continuous living cover crops. The report also presents a nuanced message on these cropping systems’ climate benefits: the science around these systems’ relationship to greenhouse gas absorption is still evolving, but it’s likely that on-farm greenhouse gas emissions will decrease under the medium adoption scenario.

Plowing a new path

MEP, FMR, and our allies have had great success pitching Forever Green to the Legislature in past years, and with this comprehensive report on hand, we’ll have a new tool to make the case for state and private sector support. And we’ll be able to show Minnesotans, including farmers, well owners, and anyone who wants fishable, swimmable water, the benefits of these new cropping systems.

In the long-term, we can look beyond Minnesota to a future in which these crops and ideas can help the Midwest and other nations improve their water quality. The seeds of a new, cleaner agricultural revolution are being sown right here in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

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