Minnesota Water Quality Certification Program Encourages Sustainable Farming Practices

By on January 18, 2018

Unprotected farm fields yield topsoil as well as farm fertilizers and other potential pollutants when heavy rains occur.(Credit: Lynn Betts, photographer [Public domain])

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), agriculture is the leading probable source of impairments to assessed streams and rivers in the United States, and the third probable source to lakes. Agricultural impairments, typically considered nonpoint source pollution, include irrigation and stormwater runoff that carries animal waste, bacteria, fertilizer, naturally occurring metals, nutrients, pesticides, excess salt, and sediment. Unfortunately, this has at times positioned farmers—a group which has the most to gain from water quality initiatives—at odds with environmental agencies and scientists.

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture has developed a program to overcome this counterproductive situation and protect the state’s waterways: the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program (MAWQCP). With more than 500 MAWQCP-certified producers operating today over nearly 300,000 acres and adding almost 900 new practices and counting to achieve certification, the program is making a major difference in the state.

Brad Redlin serves as the Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program Manager for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

“The program was inspired simply by a recognition both within and without agriculture that farming in Minnesota and across the nation was impacting water quality and, most importantly, there could be something done about it,” Redlin comments. “We only needed to align the too often—though unintentionally—unaligned government levels, agencies, and programs in the public sector; interests and priorities in the private sector; and strategies and policies among wide-ranging and quite often opposed advocates.”

The Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program philosophy

Initially formed in 2012, the program was created with federal level assistance from the EPA and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) as well as local level insight from farmers, scientists, and agencies. Although programs from other states informed the development of the MAWQCP, it quickly became a totally unique creation, designed to meet the needs of Minnesotans.

“While developing the program we learned much from other efforts and states, but what we created is not something that has ever existed before,” explains Redlin. “We developed a process for risk assessing entire farming operations via site-specific analysis of the physical and the managerial factors present for every crop grown on every individual parcel with the operation. With that, and the resulting identification of water quality risks made, and the source causes for them known, we integrate the treatments that remove the risk within the context of the larger interrelated system that exists on each unique farm.”

One of the program’s strengths is partnering with farmers rather than simply imposing regulations on them. As part of the program, farmers can access advanced site-specific opportunities and expert advice so they can implement the newest technologies and apply the best science to their land. This makes achieving buy-in a more realistic program goal, and offers actual value to participants.

“If I were to pick one lesson we learned in this arena of ‘achieving buy-in from the farming community,’ I would actually point to our program’s logically hit upon characteristic of being site specific,” Redlin responds. “We didn’t develop that characteristic as a strategic means to obtain buy-in; we developed it because it was unavoidable in responsibly providing certification—and our accompanying 10-years of regulatory certainty—of a farm’s water quality management.”

This highlights one of the most troubling recurring stumbling blocks between people in the agricultural community and the agencies intended to regulate them: a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach. This completely overlooks the fact that farmers themselves have a wealth of information about agricultural issues and problems—and that while there are common themes from site to site, each farm has unique problems.


Assistant Commissioner Matthew Wohlman with certified farmer in Middle Sauk River pilot area. (Credit: Minnesota Department of Agriculture)

“If only anecdotally, one of the biggest problems I’ve seen is the otherwise well-meaning efforts to isolate the key practices or targeted action that should be promoted to farmers,” Redlin explains. “The thing that is obvious, is that those approaches are not actually doing the farmers any favors or providing any efficiency as short-cuts to water quality. Farmers know quite well that they are managing physical systems with differing components and characteristics across every acre, and along with the vast unknown of tomorrow’s or next week’s weather awaiting to ruin any plans that may have been made, it makes it very easy and usually appropriate for them to dismiss the typical proposal from model-output for what action should be adopted on what percentage of farms in a 200,000 acre sub-watershed. Instead, they have any number of explicit physical challenges, and profound managerial options, to have to deal with on any given point on their farm map. Operating from that same understanding can earn you buy-in, but it most importantly is also how water quality must be dealt with.”

MAWQCP in action

The MAWQCP certification process functions through partnerships between professionals in the community and farmers. The goal of these one-on-one collaborations is to assess and mitigate risk to water quality on a crop by crop and field by field basis, leading up to a whole-farm evaluation and certification. A 10-year Certification Contract between a participant farm and the State of Minnesota gives the state the knowledge that the farmer is following best practices to guard water quality; it gives the farmer regulatory certainty regarding new agricultural water quality laws and rules, so they are deemed in compliance with any new state water quality laws and rules that take effect during the certification period.

“In practice, MAWQCP certification is a conversation between MAWQCP-licensed local professionals and farmers about their management, production goals, and stewardship strategies for each and every parcel of agricultural land they manage,” Redlin details. “This aspect of the process is universally, and predictably, deeply engaging for producers.”

The MAWQCP was created out of the recognition that the farmers themselves are the people who know the most about the lands they farm, have clear management goals for that land, and have both the highest personal motivation and intellectual curiosity about workable alternatives for their land management. The MAWQCP process comes into play when risks are present to empower farmers, providing them with the most effective and economical risk mitigating responses.

MAWQCP certification is a three step process for every piece of agricultural land controlled by a farmer. To achieve eligibility, the farmer must pass site inspection everywhere for the entire operation.

Step 1: Compliance. The farmer and agency confirm compliance with all water quality rules; if the farm is not in compliance, this step includes all actions, including technical assistance, needed to achieve this goal.

Step 2: Risk assessment. This process assesses risks to water quality and develops prescriptions for every risk identified. The process covers each crop on every parcel and uses comprehensive evaluation criteria including: climactic and physical field characteristics; conservation practices; and drainage, irrigation, nutrient, pest, and tillage management practices.

Step 3: Field verification. Licensed conservation professionals establish that the commitments and practices of certified producers are accurate and appropriate, and that there are no additional resource concerns to address. Random audits and verification of these commitments occur during the certification term.

Benefits all around

Redlin points out one of the most important features of the MAWQCP whole-farm risk assessment process: it has been designed to confront several intractable, institutional challenges present in most existing agricultural conservation policies and programs. For example, large numbers of agricultural acres are rented, making both owners and renters reluctant to take permanent steps toward conservation management on the land; in other cases, some producers want to institute only single-practice prescriptions that appeal to them, or only when they are paid.

MAWQCP certification uniquely responds to these challenges in several ways. It fosters an ongoing relationship between producers and the department through comprehensive, economical, and effective programs that are ongoing, and provides true whole-farm conservation planning. Either—or both—landlords and renter/producers can be certified under the program, and certification in practice provides non-farming landowners professionally-developed conservation plans for every parcel they own that can be directly incorporated into their leases.


A farm in southern Minnesota. (Credit: By inkknife_2000; [CC BY-SA 2.0)

“I hope it is clear that farmers quite literally receive a comprehensive and entirely personalized interface with technical assistance for every crop in every rotation on every field. Or pasture, et cetera, as the case may be, in their entire farming operation,” Redlin states. “Contained within that comprehensive technical assistance then is everything from soil sampling to professional engineering to satellite assisted technology to whatever else the given circumstance of the given field is, including production model, equipment used, the physical conditions of the field.”

Beyond these technical aspects, farmers benefit from getting certified under the MAWQCP, in multiple ways.

“They have personal access to professional assistance in agronomy and conservation, and the opportunity for branding and/or water-quality-attribute-validation to accompany their products—most commonly realized by certified farms that direct market, distribute via CSA or farmers markets, rather than for those producing generic commodities,” Redlin cites. “Another benefit is that MAWQCP-certified farms are always first-processed in a permit application or amendment process. And, of course, farms that are applying for certification have access to an exclusive pool of federal funds from USDA-NRCS, as well as an exclusive pool of state financial assistance funds, to assist with the expense of adopting and implementing the practices needed to treat the water quality risks on their farms.”

Farmers are taking advantage of the program, and being recognized for their proactive stewardship of the land. You can find news articles like this one announcing the way farmers are getting their land certified. The bottom line for Redlin and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture is simple: water quality is mission critical.

“We ultimately can’t short-cut our way to water quality in agriculture,” Redlin states. “When a watershed needs treatment for its challenges to water quality, there isn’t a handy prescription that simply needs to be provided to the watershed, nor can one call the Sheriff’s office and just have them require some overall prescription to be forced upon the farms in the watershed. But if you apply a risk assessment and treatment process with farmers via the local public and private professionals within the watershed, then your watershed is going to get cleaner. No other possible outcome will result from identifying and treating the water quality risks that actually exist in the watershed.”

Top image: Unprotected farm fields yield topsoil as well as farm fertilizers and other potential pollutants when heavy rains occur.(Credit: Lynn Betts, photographer [Public domain])

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