Alfalfa is an example of an alternative, perennial cropping system that protects water quality and soil health. Crops like these enhance habitat while providing an economic return to farmers. Boosting markets for such crops is a win-win for our environment and farm prosperity.
Currently, many Minnesota farm fields lie bare and brown for much of the year, leading to erosion and runoff of soil (sediment) and fertilizers. This is a leading source of pollution to our metro Mississippi as well as the Dead Zone downstream.
Buffers help, as do conservation set-asides, but we can't truly protect our river or our drinking water without more plants and roots in our tilled fields. To restore the river's water quality and aquatic life, we need more living green cover on our agricultural landscape.
It's time to transition
Much like the challenge of making wind and solar profitable in their early days, Minnesota's challenge is to make "next-generation" or "clean-water crops" (such as Kernza, a form of wild wheat) profitable to grow. More specifically, we need to make it profitable for farmers who grow rows of corn and soybeans to work in more cover and perennial crops.
Cover crops and/or deeper-rooted perennial crops act like a sponge, holding soil and fertilizer (or sediment and nitrates) in place, preventing them from running into local aquifers or wells, ditches, streams, and, eventually, the Mississippi River.
A win-win scenario for all Minnesotans
Many of the same crops that can help preserve our drinking water, lakes and rivers would also benefit our rural economies. Jobs would be created through milling and processing these crops. And there is strength in diversifying our agricultural production.
Many perennial and cover crops are also climate-resilient, able to withstand warmer and more variable temperatures. And in turn, these crops help sequester more carbon, which has a climate-positive effect. Plus, they benefit soil health and wildlife.
So just as we supported wind, solar and other renewables, it's time for Minnesota to nurture "clean-water crops" and their fledgling markets to be more profitable at scale.
Towards this end, two of FMR's main priorities continue to be the Working Lands program and the Forever Green initiative.
Working Lands aims to use the power of markets to establish new cropping systems that restore our waters while maintaining overall farm profitability. FMR and our allies first established the Working Lands program concept in 2015 and have been building upon it since.
The University of Minnesota Forever Green initiative is a development program essential to the success of the Working Lands approach. Through it, Minnesota can accelerate our development of economically viable winter annual and perennial crop options for farmers that reduce runoff pollution and habitat loss.
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