The program, which passed in both the House and the Senate, will create a crop incentive program to encourage and reward farmers who plant crops, such as switch grass, that fight pollution naturally by reducing agricultural runoff. The program laudably takes a market-based rather than a regulatory approach to encourage farmers to plant these crops. Such incentives also could prove to be an economic boon, with new biofuels technology looking to locate facilities in areas where there is a steady supply of these alternative crops. That the program was supported by the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, as well as the Friends of the Mississippi River, the Minnesota Environmental Partnership and the state’s biofuels coalition, underscores how much common ground smart policymaking can plow [editorial, “Environmentalists, Agricultural Industry Team up on Minnesota Water Quality,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, 2016.05.27].
As a voluntary incentive, this program may sound like Senate Bill 136, the riparian buffer strips incentive that South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard vetoed this spring. But Minnesota already mandates that farmers plant grass along streams and lakes, courtesy of Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton’s 2015 legislation. The Working Lands Watershed Restoration Program reaches beyond the water’s edge and encourages farmers to convert entire fields from annual crops that make erosion worse to perennial crops that reduce erosion and runoff:
Despite decades of cost-share efforts and voluntary conservation programs — paying farmers to take lands out of production — agricultural pollution has not decreased and remains the largest source of pollution to Minnesota’s surface waters. Despite our admirable conservation efforts,state research has made it clear that we cannot achieve our clean water goals in agricultural areas without widespread conversion from annual crops like corn and soybeans to perennial landscape cover.
Corn and soybean crops dominate Minnesota’s agricultural landscape and are inherently prone to runoff pollution and erosion, i.e. “leaky.” With their deeper roots, perennials help hold soil in place and filter out pollutants. Perennials, which live for multiple years rather than a single growing season, also provide pollinator and wildlife habitat, build soil health, and clean our air by grabbing or sequestering carbon [“Working Lands: Growing the Crops of the Future,” Friends of the Mississippi River, May 2016].
Note this isn’t really conservation legislation: the WLWRP still promotes crop production. The program simply seeks to shift production to less damaging crops. But if a production shift like this can win over the Minnesota Corn Growers, maybe we can come back to the 2017 South Dakota Legislature with a perennial-production incentive that will scratch Big Ag’s itch for more production and allow us to address water quality.