Making headway*

My friend Todd, the barge pilot, says he’s been laid off for over six months. Freeze-up was late on Lake Pepin where he lives and the ice-off time was pretty normal, so why the lengthy time off?

High water.

Barges can’t make it up Lake Pepin and through the locks to ports in Shakopee in this water and the situation is far worse downstream. See for yourself; they’re all stuck south of Baton Rouge.

That means no pelletized nitrogen fertilizer is making its way up river to corn farmers in Minnesota and no stored grain is making it to market.

Many corn farmers have missed the deadline to plant this year. Some are taking advantage of “Prevent Plant” insurance to cover this loss of income and will plant cover crops to hold soil and nutrients in place for the rest of the season.

Even though this is tough news for an already feeble farm economy, it would seem like less corn and less nitrogen fertilizer coming in to the state, with more cover crops, might mean we would have less fertilizer leaching from the fields. But the opposite is being predicted.

All the rain we’ve had is flushing nutrients from the soil and down the Mississippi river. NOAA predicts that this summer’s Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico will be far larger than the recent average of 6,000 sq. miles (the size of Hawaii), ballooning to nearly 8,000 sq. mi. (the size of Massachusetts). The largest one, nearly 9,000 sq. mi., occurred in 2017 (the size of New Hampshire or Vermont). Dead Zones form where fertilizers, lost from farm fields, fertilize the algae in oceans instead. As the algae die off in mass quantities and decompose, they use up the oxygen in the water. These low-oxygen conditions kill marine life.

We in the upper Midwest have been singled out as major contributors to the Dead Zone in the Gulf and with the wettest decade on record and no sign of it letting up, it’s going to be even more difficult to reduce leaching of nitrogen.

The glimmer of hope is that Minnesota corn farmers may see the benefit of adding cover crops and will incorporate them in normal seasons, too. By sucking up that excess nitrogen every year, they can increase productivity and Minnesota can start to make headway.

We’re sailing upstream against a stiff current.

* This expression, first recorded in 1887, uses headway in the nautical sense of “a vessel’s forward movement.”

— Carrie Jennings, research and policy director

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