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Future of Midwest Agriculture Think Tank and Scenario-Planning Workshop

I recently participated in a two-day workshop, led by future iQ and funded by the University of Minnesota, to explore a 20-year hypothetical future for agriculture. Participants from Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, and Michigan included nonprofit professionals, academics, farmers, and investors. The workshop was organized around the idea that a roomful of diverse, accomplished, and curious people would be collectively smart about our shared future.

We heard about the global trends and external forces influencing the future of agriculture: farm scale and mechanization; a push for local and sustainable focus; vegetarianism; and the growing need for protein in Asia, the biggest market for agricultural products.


Then, oddly, we started with a role-playing game set in the very foreign and dry region of western Australia’s wheat belt. Communities faced issues such as salt intrusion resulting from destruction of the native plant community, and dwindling populations in small towns whose identities were wrapped up in their hometown, Australian-rules football teams. A world away from agriculture in the Midwest!

While studying a map of the landscape, we were faced with a series of resource-allocation decisions. We considered the consolidation of small towns, a public angry about taxes, the need for infrastructure and water investments, and whether to cater to local or global markets. We found ourselves 20 years down the road with scenarios that ranged from “Grain and Drain” – an empty, ravaged countryside resulting  from short-sighted decisions based on political discontent and cost-cutting measures – to “Harmony with Prosperity” – wherein the environment was considered at every step and small towns flourished with products that were marketed both locally and globally.

The thing is, it wasn’t just a game. It was based on real-world conditions around Perth, Australia, where outside interests were driving the farm economy and threatening the ecosystem, causing small towns to collapse and pushing suicide rates among men to an all-time high. The geographic remove we felt from that scenario allowed us to play the game without having a personal stake in it. (We had no idea what Australian-rules football was and why it ranked so highly in their priorities.)

During the rest of the workshop we defined the key forces shaping the future of our region and how we might manage them. This included focusing on local and global markets, predicting disruptive technology, anticipating labor shortages, forecasting changes in consumer preference, and understanding climate predictions and population change. We developed plausible scenarios and examined the implications of different choices.

The future game is still taking shape and I encourage you to participate in these meaningful ways:

Take this community survey

Parallel to the Think Tank workshop, future iQ is running a community survey to bring a broader perspective into the discussion. The more survey respondents we can gather, the better the data set will be for us to explore this pertinent issue.

Access the Future of Midwest Agriculture Community Survey »

Join the conversation

Future iQ  has also created an open platform for engagement on the Future of Midwest Agriculture.

Future of Midwest Agriculture Discussion Topics »

Let your voice be heard and help shape our agricultural and environmental future.

— Carrie Jennings, research & policy director

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Soak it up, Minnesota

Roman road near Vulci; romanobritain.org/12_innovations/inv_roads.htm

I met a woman who worked on restoring rivers in the U.K. Much like our goals here, she was directed by E.U. policy to restore the condition of the stream to pre-settlement conditions. In Minnesota, that is a mere 200 years or so. In the U.K.? Pre-Roman — 100 B.C. to 450 A.D. — was what she was shooting for, a seemingly impossible task! (Well, start by taking out those pesky Roman roads).

The first task in restoring a water body is in knowing what it used to be. We are lucky in that we can extract information from original land surveyors’ reports to understand what the landscape looked like when they walked section lines. They recorded the witness trees at section corners and sketched in vegetation and shorelines. We can even learn the width of certain streams, in rods that is. Those surveyor notes have been scanned and are available online (in case you’re curious about a particular place) but prior to that were compiled in the so-called Marschner map that records pre-settlement vegetation.


From this map we can see that about a third of the Minnesota River watershed and a lot more of the Red River watershed were in wet prairie or wetland (darker yellow areas). These shallow depressional areas stored water and allowed it to soak in slowly, replenishing groundwater rather than sending it directly to the streams. Too much water in the streams causes more frequent flooding, erosion of stream banks, turbid water, permanently wider valleys, and infilled floodplain lakes.

Today the depressional storage areas or prairie potholes are almost entirely gone, as are many of the shallow lakes. Town names like Bird Island and Buffalo Lake just don’t make sense in a drained landscape. Ditching and tiling have resulted in a wholesale rearrangement of our drainage system. Most of us are unaware of these rural equivalents to our gutter and storm sewer system. We count on them in the metro; farmers count on them in their fields. But at what cost to water quality? In both places, slowing water down before it reaches the stream would be beneficial.

One of the best approaches to returning our rivers to more reasonable flows and sediment loads is to again store water on the land so streams will begin to heal themselves. This is an ongoing focus of the work of Freshwater Society. Soak it up, Minnesota. It’s good for all water in the state.

— Carrie Jennings, research & policy director

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The Great Lakes States

Regional definitions vary from source to source. This map reflects the Midwestern United States as defined by the Census Bureau. In turn, this region is sub-divided into East North Central and West North Central areas.

Does “Midwest” do it for you? I’ve always struggled with it as a good geographic descriptor. The Census Bureau didn’t even settle on its definition until 1984.

Whatever the terminology, I kind of embody it: born in Indiana, raised in Ohio, attended college in Illinois and grad school in Minnesota. I always had a Great Lake within easy reach. Maybe that is why I prefer “Great Lakes States”; I think it better defines our location, our neighbors, and the respect we have for water. Though the Great Lakes watersheds are small, they touch eight states and affect more than 30 million people in the United States and Canada.

The connection we have to water may come from our ancestors arriving by boat, fishing to put a meal on the table, vacationing by the shore, or simply being inspired by the vastness of the horizon on a Great Lake. Craig Blacklock’s 2002 project, Horizons was based on the simple rule of taking only one photo a day, from cliffs above Lake Superior. How can water and sky change so much? Some days the break between the two is stark, others so smooth it is hard to say where one ends and the other begins. I can’t imagine ever tiring of the variations.

The EPA has defined 43 areas of concern within the United States and Canada, which require special attention to return to an acceptable level of health. Three in the U.S. and four in Canada have been restored to acceptable levels through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/national/trump-epa-rollbacks/

While we may enjoy a serene surface on our Great Lakes, it hides a troubled deep. A recent book by Dan Egan, The Death and Life of the Great Lakes details the many ways we have unintentionally altered the lakes, the work that has been done to restore them, and how much is left to do. We are facing some serious challenges with proposed federal budget cuts to the EPA’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Launched in 2010, it is the latest in a series of restoration efforts to protect and restore the Great Lakes.

Among other things, the EPA fights the spread of invasive species within the lakes. These non-native animals out-compete native species and disrupt the ecological balance of the lakes. Another major problem that falls in the jurisdiction of the EPA is phosphorous pollution and associated algae blooms, which can deplete oxygen and kill fish.

We are hosting Mr. Egan on May 24 in Duluth as part of our Moos Family Lecture Series. Come hear Dan as he expertly weaves the tales of how the lakes came to be the way they are and the path forward to preserve what we value most: clean water and healthy ecosystems.


— Carrie Jennings, research and policy director

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The mystery of the rainbow darter

I felt a bit like Sherlock Holmes when Konrad Schmidt, retired DNR Fisheries biologist, contacted me about when the last known contact took place between two fish populations — the rainbow darters in Lake Phalen and their river cousins. Genetic drift had occurred between the two disjoint populations but the question he posed to me was about how much time had elapsed. Naturally, you ask a glacial geologist this question.

Existing population distribution of rainbow darters. Note the lone dot in the Mississippi watershed away from any rivers. That is the Lake Phalen population. Photo of male darter by Konrad Schmidt.

The rainbow darter (Etheostoma caeruleum) is a bottom-dweller that prefers fast, turbulent waters found in shallow rocky riffles in clear-water streams. They are common in southeastern Minnesota streams and small rivers, like the Cannon, Zumbro, Root, and Cedar. It is very odd to find them in the shallow water of Lake Phalen in Ramsey County. There is currently not even a path for them to get from a rocky, clear-water stream to the lake.

The stream from Lake Phalen dives into storm sewers, even crossing under I-94 before spilling into the Mississippi. One might think the genetic drift that occurred between the disjoint populations was caused by the build-up of the St. Paul urban area and separation of the Rondo neighborhood. But this drift needed deep time — geologic time.

So when was the last time that the lake was connected to the Mississippi by true riverine habitat and what event could have separated them? Let’s talk about waterfalls.

When the last, vast meltwater lake drained from the retreating ice sheet around 13,400 years ago, a big river flowed through the state and a bank-to-bank waterfall formed in the vicinity of downtown St. Paul. Use the Wabasha Bridge to imagine the span of the waterfall, which was located near the St. Paul downtown airport. It retreated rapidly upstream because of turbulence at its base that undercut the rock holding up the falls.

When the waterfall retreated past the creek that entered from Lake Phalen, it created a tributary waterfall in Swede Hollow. This new waterfall on the creek is the prime suspect in separating the Mississippi River rainbow darter population from the Lake Phalen one. The darters just couldn’t navigate the falls. Mr. Schmidt published a scholarly article that concluded the disjoint distribution was consistent with late Pleistocene and recent changes in the course and characteristics of the middle and lower Mississippi River.

The stories of fish — spreading to new areas and being isolated — can tell us a lot about the history of rivers and lakes. This story turns out to have had a natural cause, but every time we dig a ditch or connect a lake or wetland, we are opening the door to movement of species, potentially altering not only the fish populations, but entire aquatic ecosystems.

If you want to hear stories of this played out on a grand scale — a Great Lakes and even global scale — come hear author and journalist Dan Egan speak about his recent book, The Death and Life of the Great Lakes.  We are hosting Mr. Egan on April 25 in St. Paul and May 24 in Duluth as part of our Moos Family Lecture Series.

— Carrie Jennings, research and policy director

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Twenty-twenty hindsight

I inadvertently started humming a song from 1905 as I was reading Dan Egan’s new book, The Death and Life of the Great Lakes. (Check out a recent interview with Dan on MPR News with Tom Weber.)

School kids in Ohio (and probably New York) were taught this song that documents the experience of delivering goods by the fastest way possible at the time—canal boat. Here’s the ear worm for you.

I’ve got an old mule and her name is Sal
Fifteen years on the Erie Canal
She’s a good old worker and a good old pal
Fifteen years on the Erie Canal
We’ve hauled some barges in our day
Filled with lumber, coal, and hay
And every inch of the way we know
From Albany to Buffalo….

There’s a Bruce Springsteen version that might have made it much cooler, but that was after my time.

The hey-day of the canal system was brief. However, in this attempt to open up the Midwest to Atlantic markets, we inadvertently impacted the Great Lakes ecosystem from the top of the food chain to the bottom in ways that are still unfolding. The lakes are forever changed.

The top predator fish in the Great Lakes—lake trout—were decimated by the invasive and spectacularly ugly sea lamprey. The cry of “lamprey” by a swimmer where I lifeguarded on Lake Erie could clear the water faster than any whistle. Kids knew that they attached to almost anything moving through the water and sucked the blood out. Worse than leeches.






Massive schools of the invasive salt-water herring called alewives had short-lived population explosions followed by wholesale die-offs. The worst die-off in Chicago in 1967 created a huge disposal problem, not to mention an awful smell. Just the memory of it made the people I worked with on the beaches of Lake Michigan anxious at certain times of year.

Even Lake Erie’s recent issue with toxic blue-green algae in Toledo’s drinking water can be traced back to the changes wrought by the opening of the Great Lakes to waters and biota from elsewhere. It’s so 1970s for Lake Erie to turn toxic and green (like the shades and the Princess Leia hair-do.)

With our modern perspective we can smugly say they should have figured out that canals were only going to be economically viable for a short time. But if we are honest, we can see how our choices for economic prosperity can blind us to unintended impacts on water resources.

What are we doing that will make people generations from now shake their heads?   What would make the list for the short-term-gains-for-long-term -havoc award? Extra points for anyone who comes up with a better name for the award.

  1. Over-salting our roadways? Salt is toxic and builds up in lakes and our drinking water. Salting the earth was done in the ancient Near East and during the Middle Ages to conquered cities to curse their re-inhabitation. Are we cursing our own rivers and lakes so that we can drive fast in winter?
  2. Crude oil leaks? A pipeline in Bemidji in 1979 that released 100,000 gallons into the ground is still being studied 40 years later. The oil and its degradants continue to move into the aquifer and vapors are emitted from the soil. It’s not going away anytime soon.
  3. Millions of tons of nitrogen fertilizer applied to agricultural fields for increased yields, some of which invariably leaches away? The result is water we can’t drink and crops we can’t sell.

Look into your crystal ball and tell me what’s on your list.

— Carrie Jennings, research and policy director

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From entryway to waterway?

I learned of a farm family in west central Minnesota that spends about $70,000 each year to buy fertilizer for their farm. Corn fertilizer costs have ranged from $120-200 per acre in the last few years so I’m guessing that this family is applying the recommended amount of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium to about 400 acres of corn. When their bags are delivered in the early spring, this mortgageable amount of fertilizer fills the entryway of their house.

I am sure that this farm family does not want to lose one granule of this huge investment. And yet, unknowingly or certainly unintentionally, that is what is happening to a lot of fertilizer that is being applied to farm fields across Minnesota. It is lost.

Fields in the Root River watershed that have been intensively monitored by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) for four years  lose on average 1.4 lbs of phosphorus per acre (range of <0.1 to 8.3) each year. The phosphorus can dissolve and leave with water, primarily when the ground is frozen in March, or it can move as a particle attached to the sediment, primarily in May and June before the leafy crop canopy protects the soil. This year, look for an earlier dissolved phosphorus spike because of our warm February.

Nitrogen also moves with water — from tile to ditch to rivers, and into groundwater. Annual nitrogen loss in the monitored fields in the Root River ranges from 10 lbs to more than of 34 lbs/acre.

Who loses when fertilizer is lost? All of us: the farm family with the entryway full of fertilizer; neighbors hoping to swim or fish in local lakes that are so fertile that they grow an excess of algae and plants, smothering the aquatic life; small-town residents that have to shoulder the tax burden to build a new water treatment plant so they can drink their groundwater; and taxpayers who fund the monitoring and clean-up of the state’s increasingly polluted waters.

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture wants farmers to use soil temperatures as a guide to proper fall nitrogen applications. (photo: farmindustrynews.com)

Isn’t it better and cheaper to apply less fertilizer and keep what is applied in place? Yes.

The MDA is the lead state agency for fertilizer management and it is their role to provide guidance so fertilizers do not degrade our water. They have taken initial steps of giving farmers in the most vulnerable areas the opportunity to voluntarily implement best management practices to mitigate the effects of nitrogen pollution. For example, they recommended that these farmers restrict fall and winter application of nitrogen, a time when crops are not growing and using nitrogen. Even commodity groups are stepping up and promoting efficiencies and outreach efforts to reduce nitrogen loss.

It’s a start. If farmers do not voluntarily adopt best management practices, the next steps will be to introduce regulatory action and restrictions. It is our job to make sure farmers and the MDA make adequate and timely progress in achieving their goals.

— Carrie Jennings, research and policy director

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French fries and water quality


My son was hungry and in a hurry.  He ordered the double cheeseburger meal with fries in the drive thru; what’s the harm?

It had been a couple decades since I swore off this kind of cheap fast food and I wanted to tell him why. The link to water quality isn’t obvious.

Central Minnesota has a lot of sandy soil that is prime for growing potatoes, especially for the french-fried kind, uniformly long to produce those ketchup conveyors that we all crave. Potatoes are also easy to harvest in sand with no mud clinging to the skins. Fungal issues common to potatoes are minimized in soil that drains quickly.

As a result, the DNR was recently swamped with applications for new irrigation wells in an area known as the Pineland Sands located in Becker, Cass, Hubbard, and Wadena counties. Potatoes require a lot of water, nitrogen fertilizer, and fungicide. Water is pumped from the ground and chemicals are sometimes added immediately.

Let’s focus for now on nitrogen. It helps crops grow but is a notoriously “leaky” fertilizer. A large portion of what is applied gets away from the crop and leaks into the surface and groundwater, especially in sandy soil.

The DNR was planning to conduct an environmental assessment to evaluate the effects of groundwater appropriation projects proposed by R.D. Offutt Co. (RDO), a North Dakota-based agriculture company. The regulators were concerned with potential impacts of converting land from commercial timber production to irrigated cropland. Increased groundwater contamination by nitrogen fertilizer, and increased stress on trout and other aquatic life by diverting the flow of cold groundwater into streams, were of concern.

RDO has voluntarily reduced the number of new water appropriation permit applications from 54 to five. Given this reprieve, the DNR is designing a study focused on several key areas to determine the effects of increased irrigated crop production and land conversion in this area. The Minnesota Dept. of Agriculture is also working with RDO and has designed its own study of those effects. Finding a way to have both agriculture and clean water is the goal.

In the meantime, I’m reducing the demand for long skinny fries. Freshwater Society will continue to pay attention to the DNR study design and execution.

— Carrie Jennings, research and policy director

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The art and science of snirt

You may have seen the photo exhibit by a friend of mine, John White. It was touring the region during the last year (and prints are available for sale here). His alluring and seemingly abstract black and white swirls are actually color photos of wind-eroded topsoil and snow. Snirt — your new word for the day — that is what locals call dirty snow that is commonly seen this time of year in the farming areas of the state.

Soil is slow in forming — and by slow I am talking on the order of thousands of years. So although it makes a pretty picture, it is more than just a shame when it blows away from an area where somebody had hoped to make a living off of it.

Eventually that snow melts and the dirt is carried through ditches to cloud and clog local waterways.  Even more damage is done by the stuff that is attached to the soil — the fertilizers we have applied — in particular, phosphorus.  It tends to hold on tightly to the soil which means that when the soil is transported to the local lake or river, the phosphorus fertilizes them. When the water warms up, you get the familiar green scum that makes most lakes in Minnesota’s corn and soybean belt unappealing and sometimes even deadly.  When the scum dies and settles to the bottom of the lake and decomposes, it uses up the oxygen in the lake. A recipe for a mini dead zone and fish kill.

An ongoing study being conducted in the Root River by Minnesota Department of Agriculture staff and led by Kevin Koehner shows that 48% of the dissolved phosphorus came off the fields in March when the ground was frozen. That would be your snirt and really, any other soil that is not held in place by plants that can easily move when water flows across frozen fields.

Simplest solution to keeping soil in place over the winter? Cover crops. That is something you plant after harvest and plow under in the spring when you plant like winter wheat. Even better is perennial cover like alfalfa that rarely exposes the soil. Farmers may need incentives to incorporate practices that don’t help their bottom line. That is where state and federal policy come in. We will be encouraging the adoption of state policies that help improve water quality during this time of year while the legislature is in session and snirt is in the wind.

— Carrie Jennings, research and policy director

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These are a few of my favorite things

Blueberry, Wild Rice, Hockey, Agate, Honeycrisp, Pink Lady’s Slipper, Morel, Norway Pine, Walleye, Milk, Loon, Lester. Is this some kind of a weird shopping list for a camping trip? If you’ve been a Minnesotan for a while you will recognize this as a partial list of our state symbols. They respectively are our state muffin, grain, sport, gemstone, fruit, flower, mushroom, tree, fish, drink, bird, and soil.

What, you missed the 2012 announcement of the state soil series – the Lester (and that soils have names)? Full name: Lester Loam.

Most people only use “loam” to describe a good soil for growing things. In fact, loam is good for growing things but also precisely describes the ratio of sand, clay, and silt in a soil. Too much of any one makes a soil less than optimal; loams have a nice balance. The loamy soils in the southern part of Minnesota are the envy of many around the world. The Lester is the best of the best. It covers 6,000 acres in the eastern part of MLRA 103 (Major Land Resource Area).

This is the area that, in the 10,000 years since the Des Moines lobe deposited its gray till – a shifting mixture of prairie, wet prairies and forests along with the burrowing and microscopic organisms that lived there – created the perfect combination of texture, structure, organic content, and available nutrients in a sweet soil for farming (sweet meaning calcareous or non-acidic, not sah-weet!).

This is a fortuitous chain of events for those that immigrated to this region, cleared and drained the land, and started harvesting the fruits of the soil. But if soil is an evolving, living thing that took 10,000 years to develop to this point, and also relies on living things to sustain it, how long will the Lester remain one of the best agricultural soils in the world?

The Natural Resources Conservation Service and farmers who rely on their services are focusing more on what makes and keeps a soil healthy and functioning. A large portion of a soil’s health report has to do with its capacity to infiltrate and store water. This is a function of its texture, structure, and organic content.

That is where Freshwater Society comes into the picture. We care about soil health because it impacts how water enters the ground. Soil on the move becomes water pollution because of its effects on water clarity and also because of the problematic chemicals like phosphorus that sorb to it. Keeping soil in place and in a healthy state is everyone’s goal.


— Carrie Jennings, research and policy director

Source: http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/mcvmagazine/archive.html?keyword=lester (May-June 2013)

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The Norwegian and the puddle

norwegianI have gone on my share of geology field trips with visiting geologists from around the world. We typically visit exposures of glacial sediment, commonly found in gravel pits, and discuss what we see. When a colleague of mine from the Norwegian Geological Survey stooped to drink from a puddle in a gravel pit in Minnesota, I was horrified. I think I may have smacked the water out of his hands. He stayed thirsty and confused about why I was convinced that our water was not safe to drink.

Why did I assume that puddle water was undrinkable? Dangerous, even?

This was an “exposure” of the water table aquifer, a place where digging for sand and gravel had exposed the groundwater. We were in a rural setting in dairy country and my presumption was that, compared to our deeper groundwater, this was not as safe (but probably better than drinking from a nearby stream).

What are your expectations? Should we expect deep groundwater to be drinkable without treatment? How about shallow groundwater that is replenished by rain but potentially carries with it anything on the surface? Do you think about it at all?

One of our biggest challenges is to get people to think about where their water comes from (and the answer isn’t “the tap”) and how groundwater is connected to surface water. Then we can start tackle the bigger issues of how clean we’d like it to be and how to improve groundwater quality.

— Carrie Jennings, research and policy director



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