Partnerships, cost-sharing are key to agriculture and water quality project

As the Yellow Medicine River winds its course in southwest Minnesota, descending from the prairie couteau to the Minnesota River near Granite Falls, it curls around an 80-acre field on the Doug and Lois Albin farm.

The soil is fertile – great for raising abundant yields of corn and soybeans. But the low-lying ground adjacent to the river often remained too wet to plant, and was susceptible to erosion. Installing sub-surface drain tile would improve chances of getting a crop, but it would also open the door to more nutrients and sediment pollution in the river.

In seeking a win-win solution, the Albins opened their land to a major project to install the drain tile, but also reduce pollutants reaching the river. Components of the project include drainage water management, streambank and outlet stabilization, woodchip bioreactors, and a more recent tool – saturated buffers.

The expense, both in dollars and technical assistance, would have exceeded any immediate economic benefit. But with local, federal, and state assistance, including a grant funded by the Clean Water, Land, and Legacy amendment, the project became an example of what can be done when property owners, agencies, and the public can achieve by working together.

Thanks to a cooperative effort by the Yellow Medicine Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD), state and federal agencies, and other groups, the project has been installed, buffering the impact of cropland on the river, and providing important data for wider use.

“I appreciate everybody’s participation,” Albin says. “The agencies were very helpful and willing to work together. This is exciting here, and I hope we can continue.” Along with the Yellow Medicine SWCD, the Department of Agriculture and University of Minnesota Water Resources Center served as lead co-sponsors, following up on their conservation drainage focus groups project. While a majority of the cost was covered by the Clean Water, Land, and Legacy Amendment and other funds, the Albins used their own money to complete the project.

The saturated buffer impacts 12 acres at a cost of $3,600. The bio-filter impacts 22 acres at a cost of $13,500. All open tile intakes have been removed from the research field. Fertilizer application is calibrated and soil grid-sampled, which improves cost-efficiency and can reduce nitrogen loss. “We’ve got great soils, we just need to learn how to use it better,” Doug says.

Last February, the Albins were recognized for their cooperation and effort on the project, receiving the “River Keeper” award from Clean Up the River Environment, a citizen organization based in Montevideo, where the Chippewa River flows into the Minnesota River.

More information about crop land research is available at the Minnesota Corn Growers’ Association website, on the Discovery Farms webpage of MAWRC, and the Clean Water Research Program of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

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