Restoring Watershed Health: Drop-by-Drop

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Another rainy Friday: a good time to contemplate what trying to produce food on an industrial scale has done  to our natural plumbing—and how it pays back the favor.

From the news that two decades of concerted conservation efforts in the Minnesota River still leave places like Lake Pepin doomed sediment basins, to ongoing reports that the Mississippi is wreaking havoc all the way to the Gulf, to the evidence that storm events are causing unprecedented erosion in farm country, water’s wrath is making itself felt this spring.

In the Land of 10,000 Lakes and enough tile lines to drain Lake Superior, it’s tough to get one’s head around how to restore hydrological health to the landscape when things are going wrong on such a grand scale. The vastness of what we face came home to me when I saw the photo on the front page of the Star Tribune showing the Minnesota dumping sediment into the Mississippi at Fort Snelling.

At times like this, it’s good to narrow our focus, and look at what can be done one watershed at a time.

That’s what struck me recently while reading This Perennial Land: Third Crops, Blue Earth and the Road to a Restorative Agriculture. The authors, Lansing Shepard and Paula Westmoreland,  know that a book about improving hydrological health in the 100,000 square miles that make up the Midwestern Corn Belt would be overwhelming. So instead, This Perennial Land focuses on one watershed: the greater Blue Earth River region, a 2.3 million acre basin in southern Minnesota that’s been intensely farmed for decades.

Shepard is a writer who specializes in conservation, environmental policy and natural history. Westmoreland is an agro-ecologist who co-founded the Minnesota-based Permaculture Institute for Cold Climate. They use their expertise and writing skills (along with beautiful professional photos) to take us on a journey through an agricultural region that’s full of natural surprises.

It’s clear Shepard and Westmoreland believe that in order to know where we’re going, we need to know where we’ve been. They do an excellent job of providing some ancient and not-so-ancient history of the Blue Earth basin. They then bring it into present times, explaining why, for example, the way soil was formed by the last glaciers creates such a problem for farmers trying to drain farm fields.

Using sophisticated maps developed by natural resource agencies, one-on-one interviews with farmers, scientists and other residents of the basin, as well as firsthand observation, Shepard and Westmoreland paint a picture of a region that is more than just a black desert of corn and soybeans. One description provides a hint as to just how much time the authors spent observing the landscape:

“In the dying light of this late July day, the scene before us could have been an updated version of one of those eighteenth century landscape paintings…Prairie grasses and wildflowers descend a facing slope to the water’s edge, while out on a spit of land, a snow-white egret strikes a pose over its inverted image.”

This book uses descriptions like that, coupled with those beautiful landscape photographs, to make the reader care about a place like the basin, and to see the “opportunities” it offers beyond feeding the insatiable maw of the multinational grain trade. But this is no coffee table book—it is laid out in a large-format style—that’s just pretty to look at.

It goes on to use detailed maps to show the opportunities that are available on a landscape level, pointing out specific areas where the soil is poorly drained, extremely steep, or otherwise a prime candidate to be converted from row crops to perennial systems such as pasture, hay, trees or prairie.

All of the natural opportunities in the world would mean little without the most important cog in the wheel: people. Many of the essays describe farmers, scientists, conservationists and outdoor enthusiasts who see the possibilities the Blue Earth holds. It’s striking how many farmland conservation projects—a prairie planting here, a wetland there—were prompted by a simple love of hunting, or just a feeling that some sort of natural legacy needed to be taken forward.

The overriding message is when these various personalities team up, great things can happen. These teams emphasize utilizing the energies and talents of local people, but also aren’t above adopting cutting-edge farming and conservation techniques that have been perfected elsewhere.

Another important element that can’t be ignored is the economy. Sometimes hunting groups or other natural resource entities will pay for a restored wetland or prairie. But where will the financial incentives come to get more of the land betwixt and between restored natural areas put into perennial, environmentally friendly systems? Should we just sacrifice that in-between land to industrial ag?

No, say the authors. They describe the town of Madelia (pop. 2,400), and how an energetic woman named Linda Meschke is bringing together farmers, biofuel companies, city officials and a hodgepodge of others to create a financial incentive for farmers to add a “third crop” to their corn-soybean rotation. The idea is that eventually farmers within 25 miles of the town will be growing perennials such as prairie grass that will be processed into biofuel. If it works, more soil will be covered year-round, carbon will be sequestered, homegrown energy will be available to the community, and farmers will make money.

This thinking is what’s driving the Chippewa 10% Project, a joint LSP-Chippewa River Watershed Project initiative that’s trying to help farmers make water-friendly farming economically feasible near the headwaters of the Minnesota.

As the Project’s recently released schedule of “Profits from Perennials” summer field days/classes shows, there are some exciting ideas already being executed on the land. And these innovations are being put in place with the attitude that improving watershed health doesn’t require reverting the entire landscape to what it looked like pre-European settlement. Re-introducing perennials to key areas can make a world of difference on a much larger scale.

Can the lessons imparted in This Perennial Land or by the Chippewa 10% Project be applied in other agricultural basins? Yes. It just requires taking the time to look, and look in a way that we truly “see” the options available in what many dismiss as a black desert. The opportunities are there: acre-by-acre, person-by-person.

One Response to “Restoring Watershed Health: Drop-by-Drop”

  1. Tim Gieseke

    I, too, enjoyed the Perennial Land as it provides a perspective and an agro-economic world that is not given its just market signal. As farmers struggle this spring to answer the market signals of our world, one wonders how the economy can send a better message. As a farmer, I can not be hypocritcal and damn tile drainage, as our drainage system was the reason we were able to complete our planting this spring. As a child in a family of eight, I can not damn tillage as it allowed my parents to make enough income on 212 acres and stay on the farm. As a consumer, I do think the price of food has to rise to keep us from wasting it and eating our $10 worth at each meal. But most people do not want to pay more for food and eventually (maybe this year) will recognize how crucial production is to their lives. But a simplet reason so much tile occurs is that farmers believe the saying, “a farmer pays for tiling once if they install it and every three years they don’t install it.” While a more diverse landscape with perennials would buffer a wet spring like this year, the market signal is almost dead silence. Farming is a unique industry, but not so unique that its participants do not listen to market signals.


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