For Water Quality, Minnesota Encourages Replacing Corn and Beans with Perennial Crops

The Minnesota Legislature wrapped up messily last week without getting much done. But they did pass the Working Lands Watershed Restoration Program to help control erosion and agriculture run-off:

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.

22 Responses to For Water Quality, Minnesota Encourages Replacing Corn and Beans with Perennial Crops

  1. Daryl Root

    And where does this money come from? The taxpayer? Stealing from one group to bribe another. The definition of government.

  2. Steve Sibson

    “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.”

    This program will simply raise the cost of food for the poor. This program will affect the small guy as much as Big Ag, if not more. Cory will probably be on a postcard as one who wants to go to Pierre to make South Dakota a truly red state, as in communist red. There isn’t a whole lot of difference between communism and capitalism. Both create a centralization of power and wealth.

  3. Cory, I’m very interested in exploring this idea.

  4. mike from iowa

    Cory the Commie? Comrade Cory?Nah, doesn’t ring true and it isn’t nice for a Memorial Day.

    If Minnesota cuts back on soybean production in a meaningful way, where would all them hog cafos dump their hot nitrogen mess? Hog production isn’t likely to stop growing and the waste has to go somewhere besides in potable water.

    I can see Farm Burro and big AG suing grass farmers to go back to producing soybeans so the hog farmers have a waste repository.

  5. Maybe in Minnesota they should have stopped digging those deep ditches to drain every pothole in the state overnight. Raising corn actually raises organic matter in the soil which improves soil quality. They should look at where the problem starts, or is it too late to be fixed in Mn.

  6. Paul Seamans

    The City of Des Moines is suing three water districts in Iowa for excessive nitrates in their drinking water from farm runoff. I believe that this goes to court in August. If Des Moines wins this case it will have major implications across the country, even in South Dakota. No longer will my neighbor be able to allow his hog manure to run from his land into my water just because he feels he can do whatever he damn well pleases.

    The right of farmers to farm unimpeded as he wishes runs up against my right to clean drinking water. Times, they are a changing and the South Dakota legislature needs to get with the program or they will have the nasty ole EPA become more involved in this issue.

  7. mike from iowa

    Greg-in iowa there is a new ethanol plant located in Emmetsburg that burns gazillions of tons of nw iowa cornstalks. Farmers around here bale their stalks and ship them off to be burned,stripping their lands of needed biomass. Several bale all their stalks, some rake them w’o chopping them first and take only about half.

    They aren’t replacing that critical component for soil building.

  8. Steve, increase the cost of food for the poor? How about decreasing the cost of water and health care for everybody? Less runoff and higher water quality mean less cost for treating our drinking water and fewer health harms from the water supply.

    Daryl, this isn’t theft. This appears to be general fund expenditures (paid for by the farmers who may avail themselves of the program, as well as other taxpayers, including visitors like you and me) used to promote more environmentally sustainable agriculture. This isn’t bribery; this is the public will using public dollars to balance out harms not addressed properly by pure market forces.

  9. Steve Sibson

    Cory, using subsidies to clean our water does not make water less expensive. It only lines the pockets of crony capitalism. Thanks for providing another example of communism and capitalism coming together, right here in the red state of South Dakota.

  10. The root cause for this issue in Ethonal – with record amount of corn being planted to supply the Bio Fuels industry, which caused excessive high prices for corn which caused marginal farm land to be put into production. Every acre that could be farmed is now farmed. Let’s drop corn acreage back to the pre Ethonal levels and this will solve a lot of the problem. Will also put live stock back on the family farm.

    Ethonal is the biggest scam that tax payers have been sold.

  11. Paul Seamans

    Subsidies for cleaning water could be paid for by fines levied against the people that pollute the water. No one has any right to dump crap into my drinking water. Not farmers, not cities, not mining operations, not oil companies. Not nobody.

  12. mike from iowa

    In 2015, Wisconsin inspectors? failed to find a single problem with all the Cafos in the state. Not a one. No citations were issued. Walker sez no citations means nothing is wrong.

  13. Mike from Iowa, you are right about removing corn stalks after harvest for ethanol is a very poor practice. It might be a cheaper way to produce ethanol but it will come at a high cost for soil health and turn highly productive land into very highly erodible land. I have grown corn for over 40 years and have never removed stalks so I can build organic matter and use far less fertilizer.

  14. Greg, I’ll agree that leaving the stalks increases organic matter, but does that address the runoff issue? If I understand the science right, perennials establish a deeper root system that provides ongoing nutrient capture and soil stabilization.

  15. Sam2, the Minnesota incentives passed in part because they still support “working lands”—instead of taking cropland out of production completely, switching it from corn and soybeans to switchgrass and other perennials that can still produce biofuels. Is switchgrass ethanol as much of a “scam” as corn ethanol? Is soy diesel also a “scam”?

  16. Steve Sibson

    “switching it from corn and soybeans to switchgrass and other perennials that can still produce biofuels”

    That means less resources going toward the production of food. That means less food, higher prices, and more people not able to afford food. And the biofuels are also more expensive than other forms of energy. This sustainable development stuff is not making sense.

  17. mike from iowa

    Much of the corn produced in recent years has gone to ethanol production, not food stuffs, Sibby. You been living under a rock?

  18. mike from iowa

    ps- many foreign nations will not accept GMO grains or meat products fed GMO grains.

  19. Bill Dithmer


    The Blindman

  20. Kori;

    Stover for Ethonal is a bigger scam. Drive by the mess at Emmtesburg Iowa , hundreds of acres with corn stalk piles rotting – millions of tax payer dollars given to POET to develop this program with only limited production.

    Another scam brought to you by the renewable fuels coalition

  21. Maybe I’m all wet but doesn’t all the tiling that is going on move the pollution from one farmers field to a wetland that doesn’t necessarily stay on that same farmers land. Even if it did, it’s seems to me tiling is a big part of what is polluting our natural resources. And don’t get me started with the tearing out of shelter belts. As I drive through Grant county I see a lot of both farming practices becoming the norm. Minnesota is moving West.