Megan M. Gregory
Land Use and Water Quality: The Importance of Conservation Farming
There is a growing awareness that preserving water quality is inextricably linked to good land stewardship practices, particularly on agricultural land. Freshwater ecosystems are often among those most severely affected by agriculture due to the high inputs of eroded soil particles, nitrogen and phosphorous fertilizer, and pesticides they receive in runoff (Tilman, 1999). The EPA has identified nonpoint source pollution from agriculture as the source of more than 50% of the pollutants impairing lake water quality and 60% of the pollutants impairing river water quality. Sedimentation, eutrophication, and pesticide contamination due to agricultural runoff have become serious problems in many Midwestern lakes and rivers in agricultural watersheds (Anderson et al., 2001; L.L. Jackson, 2002; Randall et al., 2002). Soil erosion and nutrient losses from farms have negative effects on both agricultural and aquatic ecosystems as well as public health.
Despite the soil and water quality problems associated with agricultural
runoff from conventional farms, conservation farming practices can be an
important part of addressing the interconnected concerns of soil and watershed
conservation. For example, by incorporating perennials into crop rotations
(L.L. Jackson, 2002), reducing tillage, developing nutrient management and
integrated pest management plans, and maintaining conservation buffers such
as riparian forests (USDA / NRCS, 1999), farmers can preserve both soil fertility
and water quality by preventing erosion, reducing runoff and leaching, and
reducing inputs of fertilizers and pesticides to the watershed.
Erosion and Water Quality Concerns in the Cannon River Region
Erosion and water quality are particularly important concerns in
the Cannon River Region, located in southeast Minnesota. Over the last
30 years, the eleven-county region comprising southeast Minnesota has experienced
a marked shift from diversified cropping systems including corn, soybeans,
small grains, perennial crops (such as alfalfa), and livestock pasture toward
exclusively corn and soybean row crops, which now comprise 97% of the agricultural
landscape (Randall, 2003).
In summary, the Cannon River Region’s interconnected concerns of
soil erosion and watershed contamination are largely the result of changes
in the agricultural landscape toward more intensive row cropping, combined
with challenges presented by the region’s unique climate and soil characteristics.
In light of the related erosion and water quality concerns facing
the Cannon River Region and the importance of sustainable agriculture in addressing
these concerns, my purpose in this project was twofold, consisting of a research
component and an education component. First, I sought to better understand
the ecological, political, economic, and social aspects of conservation
farming in Northfield, MN by interviewing farmers, agricultural extension
agents, and Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) staff. After
gaining a better understanding of conservation farming and some of the challenges
farmers face in implementing practices that conserve water quality, I put
this knowledge to use by working with the Cannon
River Watershed Partnership to develop educational programs and resources
that will enable farmers to contribute to good stewardship of local land
and water resources.
--- Methodology --- Literature Review --- Watershed Conservation on Northfield Farms --- In Pictures: Northfield Farms --- Educational Program Development for Conservation Farming in Northfield, MN -- Conclusions -- Acknowledgements --- Literature Cited ---
Unless otherwise noted, all photos on this site were taken by the author (Megan Gregory).