FarmWise targets ag erosion and runoff


When Dave Legvold started farming near Northfield 35 years ago, he had a mentor, the late John Harkness, an older neighbor who had been his 4-H club leader.

Harkness gave Legvold advice on grain marketing strategies, loaned him farm equipment and suggested at one point that Legvold should branch out from corn and soybeans and buy a herd of charolais beef cows.

Farmer Dave Legvold in his soybean field
Dave Legvold, conservation advocate

Over the last couple of decades, Legvold – an ardent conservationist committed to increasing the quality and productivity of his soil, reducing soil loss to erosion and minimizing the runoff of water and fertilizer from his land – has become a mentor, himself, to another neighbor.

That neighbor, hog farmer Rusty Kluver, was predisposed to land stewardship anyway. But he credits Legvold for inspiring him to try a number of conservation strategies: strip tillage to keep water-holding crop residue on his soil while reducing the amount of fertilizer seeping into groundwater and running off the land into streams, wider buffer strips along streams and ditches to slow down and filter runoff, rock-filled catchment basins to trap soil before it enters tile lines.

This fall, Kluver plans to follow Legvold’s lead and test corn stalks in his fields for nitrate levels to ensure he is not over-applying nitrogen fertilizer. And Kluver is investigating installing a wood-chip bio-reactor, like one Legvold is installing this fall, to remove nitrogen from water flowing through tile draining one of his fields.

“I care about my neighbors, not just next-door, but globally, the people downstream,” said Kluver, who farms 700 acres and raises 9,000 hogs a year. “I just always thought that there’s a way to do this better, and I guess Dave has helped me see that.”

The relationship between Legvold and Kluver and the notion that one farmer can have a positive and powerful impact on the conservation practices of another is at the heart of a farmer-to-farmer mentoring program that the Freshwater Society and the National Park Service are hoping to build in the Minnesota River Valley.

In early September, a joint proposal from Freshwater and the Park Service won a $15,000 grant in a competition sponsored by the Minnesota Community Foundation.

The $15,000 will pay for a one-year demonstration project – called FarmWise – aimed at showing that informal relationships, like the one between Legvold and Kluver, can be developed, even among farmers who do not initially know each other. The goal is to demonstrate those relationships can foster conservation that will improve water quality.

Legvold and Kluver were interviewed in a video that helped Freshwater and the Park Service win the grant.

The National Park Service joined the competition for the grant because soil lost into the Minnesota River significantly degrades water quality in the Mississippi River, and the Park Service operates the 72-mile-long Mississippi National River and Recreation Area in the Twin Cities. Lark Weller, the National Park Service’s water quality coordinator in the Twin Cities, joined Peggy Knapp, Freshwater’s director of programs, in applying for the $15,000 grant.

The FarmWise program will be targeted to one of the sub-watersheds in the Minnesota River Valley that disproportionately account for the Minnesota River’s heavy sediment load. Farmers whose fields and practices affect vulnerable areas along the Minnesota and its tributaries will be invited to meet and talk with mentor farmers who have had success in fighting erosion.

“We hope to build a corps of experienced conservation-minded farmers, a corps of university researchers who can help farmers monitor the effect of conservation-farming strategies and a corps of other ag-related professionals – and then match-make, broker relationships, bring together all that experience and knowledge with the goal of getting more conservation strategies on the farm,” said Knapp.

Initially, the program aims to recruit three to five farmers who would agree to meet with mentors, closely monitor their existing farming practices during the 2012 cropping year and then, in subsequent years, put in place any conservation strategies they accept as beneficial for their farming operations and for water quality in the Minnesota and the Mississippi.

According to Knapp, plans for the program are modeled, a bit, on somewhat similar farmer-to-farmer conservation efforts in Iowa and Ohio. “It’s not a prescriptive course of action, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution,” she said. “It’s not something we’ll do to farmers. It’s an approach that asks farmers to work with us.”

If FarmWise succeeds in recruiting farmers willing to be mentored and willing to be mentors, Freshwater and the National Park Service will seek continuing funding from other sources.

None of the conservation practices the mentors are likely to advocate will be new. Most will be strategies – like the strip tillage, and the stalk nitrate testing – that Legvold is using on his 800 acres and that many farmers already know about and may have tried or considered trying.

“Dave is the model for the mentor,” Knapp said. “Dave is a model for a conservation farmer who is committed and confident talking to other farmers. He not only has implemented the strategies, he has done the research. He has the data to back up the impact he claims to get from these strategies.”
And Legvold, for his part, is happy to play a role in FarmWise, as a mentor or as a member of the advisory committee that will guide the project.

“I think a support system for farmers is very important,” Legvold said. “Because right now farmers listen to people whom they pay large amounts of money to. I kind of think it’s the big three: Agronomy providers, and that’s chemicals and fertilizers; their seed dealers; and equipment dealers… The beauty of FarmWise is it’s not Case-IH, it’s not Pioneer Seed, it’s not Monsanto. It’s a farmer.”