New program gives farmers recognition and help
A new program started in 2015 that may be of interest to farmers of all types. It doesn't matter if you raise pigs, cattle, chickens or goats. Or if you grow wheat, corn, oats or hay. You could even have gardens full of vegetables, flowers, berries or herbs. Or maybe a fruit orchard or a Christmas tree farm. You might even have a maple tree stand for syrup or beehives for honey. It also doesn't matter if you are a small farmer with just a few acres or a big farmer with hundreds or thousands of acres. If you raise something on your farm to sell, this new program is available to you.
The Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program (MAWQCP) is a "volunteer opportunity for farmers and agricultural landowners to take the lead in implementing conservation practices that protect our water," according to the website of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. Under this program, those who implement and maintain approved farm practices will become "certified producers" and will obtain regulatory certainty for a period of 10 years.
Big words … but what does it all mean? That's what I set out to discover as I sat in on the final meeting between one of Carlton's first certified farmers and a certification specialist. I wanted to investigate this program from the two different sides — government and farmers — and in the process, I discovered a unique perspective that I hadn't even thought about!
THE PROGRAM … WHAT AND HOW
According to MAWQCP, a farmer or landowner who is deemed a "certified farmer/producer" is one who is in compliance with any and all state water quality laws and other regulations, such as land use, shoreline setbacks, feedlot permits, disposal of waste pesticides, and other pollution control and farming regulations. Those in Carlton County who enter the program will go through the certification process with one of the local MAWQCP Area Licensed Certification Specialists (LCS): Ryan Clark of the Carlton County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) or Will Bomier of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
Step One: The interested farmer begins the process by filling out a program application. As soon as the application is signed, the farmer has attained MAWQCP applicant status and is eligible to receive technical and financial assistance from several sources to help achieve certification or accomplish conservation projects.
Step Two: The LCS meets with the farmer for one to two hours to collect the information that will give an overall look at the management of his farming operation. Information is collected for all land within that farmer's operation and control, for each "field" of his farm and any acreage he may rent/lease. A wide variety of information is gathered, including maps of all the tracts, physical features of the land, soil type and test reports, nutrient application information, manure tests and application records, pesticide records, pest management, tillage records, irrigation and drainage management, cover crop information, and conservation practices. Most of the information is a part of normal farming operation records.
Step Three: The information is used by the LCS to complete the "Assessment Tool" for each field. Each assessment is calculated by computer and given a score up to "10." A summary sheet is prepared for each field, each crop, and each rotation. In order to achieve certification, each field/each crop must achieve a score of 8.5 or higher.
Step Four: The LCS will conduct a field verification visit of the farm to verify the assessment information on a field-by-field basis.
If a field ends up with too low of a score, the LCS and the farmer will discuss conservation practices that can raise the score above the 8.5 needed. For example, the farmer could use no-till instead of conventional tillage with a plow, or he could plant cover crops after harvest instead of leaving bare land, or maybe use grassy strips that slow water which runs down a field's slope during heavy rainfall. The conservation practices must be agreed upon by the LCS and the farmer with the end goal of protecting water quality. The farmer can then apply for technical and financial assistance to help plan and complete the conservation practice(s).
Step Five: The LCS will review the summary sheets and scores with the farmer. If all of the fields reached the 8.5 score, the farmer signs the application and his property is considered a Water Quality Certified (WQC) Farm for the next 10 years. If the scores are less than 8.5, the farm can still be certified if there is an agreement in place as to what conservation practice(s) will be done on the farm and when they will be completed.
What MAWQCP is basically looking for, according to Clark, is if the farmer is "working with nature" to improve the health of the soil and the physical features of each field to raise the healthiest crops or animals that he can.
THE BENEFITS … FOR THE PUBLIC, FOR THE FARMER
Although the certification process takes only about two to three hours of the farmer's time, it still takes time for a busy farmer. So what are the benefits?
The biggest benefit the public receives is the assurance that the WQC farmer is following all the rules and regulations and he is using conservation practices that protect the water in our lakes, rivers, streams, and wetlands. For those who look for Certified Organic Producers/Farmers, this certification would be almost as important as it shows that this farmer is working to protect water quality, too.
For the farmer, besides the recognition of being a WQC farmer, there are two other benefits. One is that he is deemed to be in voluntary "regulatory certainty" for the 10 years of his certification. This means this farmer has reached the state's water quality standards on his own terms rather than waiting to be regulated to meet the standards in the future. Only one "checkup" will be done during the certification period to make sure the farm is still meeting the certification agreement and is in compliance with any new state water quality rules.
The other benefit is the WQC farmer now has a higher priority and chance to obtain financial and technical assistance from specially-designated funds and agencies. The farmer will have access to funds with less competition and higher cost share rates than other programs offer. This is a huge benefit!
UNIQUE PERSPECTIVES … AND GUINEA PIGS?
So this brings me to the unique perspectives that I heard during the final analysis meeting between LCS Clark and the farmer, Richard Dalen, who with his wife Karola owns Northern Harvest Farm, a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm in Wrenshall. A CSA, according to the farm's website, creates “a partnership between a farm and members from the local community. The members provide financial support to the farm by purchasing a share at the beginning of the growing season. In return, the farm provides fresh, locally grown products throughout the growing season. Members of the farm have the satisfaction of knowing where their food comes from and the opportunity to enjoy delicious produce that is grown with great care."
Northern Harvest Farm is a Certified Organic Farm through Midwest Organic Services Association, and the Dalens’ goal is "to provide local, organically grown produce to members in the Northland community … (and) the opportunity to do meaningful work and to contribute to a more sustainable and healthy food system." They produce their crops without the use of any harmful chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides.
So MAWQCP was a good and natural fit for Dalen because he has already implemented several natural conservation practices to improve the health of his farm and crops during the 10 years he has owned his farm. Northern Harvest Farm has gone from being a 30-member CSA to having 120 members. That's a big increase! In addition, they sell produce to various wholesale accounts including Whole Foods Co-op, the Duluth Grill, Streetcar Kitchen and Pub and Essentia Health.
Dalen and his family are not only concerned with the yield they get, but also with the health and vitality of the land which they believe is the basis for growing healthy, nutritious food. He feels there is "too much emphasis in the agribusiness world on yield per acre, and not enough concern for the health of the land or for the quality and nutritional value of the food produced."
When I asked Dalen why he sought this certification, his unique perspective surprised me. While he was interested in the certification and the access to a larger, less competitive pool of funding, Dalen had two main benefits in mind.
One, he was interested in gaining another point of view of his farm, what he is doing well and things he could improve.
The second benefit was the unique perspective I had not thought about. Dalen considers his farm a "guinea pig" in that he is always researching and experimenting to find the best ways to work with nature to create healthy, nutritious food. By being a "guinea pig," Dalen feels his farm can help agencies, such as NRCS, that work with farmers, to see practices in action, to discover which practices work and which do not, and to find the best ways to help farmers implement policies that help instead of hinder or burden them. He thinks his farm could help "encourage government programs to acknowledge problems and solutions" and "evaluate the pros and cons of different conservation practices" regulated by the USDA system. In addition, he believes his farm, with its unique topography and water flow, “would be a good way to calibrate any program to protect water quality.”
After all, these agencies, according to Dalen, "have to get their practices from somewhere and they will learn a lot by seeing them in action first."
Clark agreed with him and added that the organization of the SWCDs in Minnesota (in 1938) started with farmers, and while the subject of conservation and best management practices will probably continue to evolve and change, "farmers will always be important leaders in what works and what does not" when it comes to the land and the crops or animals they raise.
The new Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program is a wonderful way to acknowledge, reward and encourage farmers who I consider are "true stewards of the land." The program also has the important potential to foster a closer relationship between farmers and government agencies in which each can learn from the other's perspective.
Kim Samuelson is the Carlton County SWCD elected supervisor for District 4. For further information about the MAWQCP program or to set up an appointment, call the Carlton SWCD (218-384-3891) or stop by their office for a visit (808 Third St., Carlton). For more information about the SWCD, visit www.carltonswcd.org or their Facebook page (Carlton SWCD).