MANKATO, Minn. — Leaders from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency weighed in on the state’s ongoing plan to address groundwater contamination while at this year’s MN Ag Expo.
Thom Petersen, Minnesota’s ag commissioner, and Dana Vanderbosch, assistant commissioner of the pollution control agency, as well as Minnesota Corn Growers Association President Dana Allen-Tully spoke on the topic of nitrates during the annual event hosted by Minnesota Soybean Growers Association and Minnesota Corn Growers Association.
Vanderbosch and Petersen reiterated how the state has been very active in preventing nitrate contamination in waters, long before the EPA required the state agencies work together and report to the federal agency on providing safe drinking water to those with contaminated wells in eight southeastern Minnesota counties.
Petersen said since the EPA’s involvement, he’s visited several southeast Minnesota operations to check how farmers are responding.
“I’ve been really encouraged by how many farmers have reached out to me wanting to talk about it in a real positive light, because you think oh, farmers have a bull’s-eye on their back on this,” Petersen said. “But in a lot of ways, farmers can tell you, hey, this works.”
He said that combating nitrate contamination will be a long haul.
“This isn’t going to be flipping a switch, and we’re not going to just magically do something in the next couple of months, and the nitrate issue is going to get better,” Petersen said. “We could put all of our land in CRP for the next 20 years and we could still see an increase because of legacy nitrate and things that are already there.”
He called the changes underway —
— still necessary and worth taking care of, but that expectations should be managed.
Vanderbosch said she believes expectations from the EPA are reasonable and the agency isn’t looking to do more than manage the concerns of the environmental groups who submitted the petition.
“The role that we have to play in this nitrate puzzle — this nitrate challenge — is long-term work,” she said. “(The EPA) understands that we already have structures in place, and they didn’t actually provide all that much direction to us other than asking us to consider the Idaho lawsuit, and then to look at our feedlot rules and make sure that they are as robust as they could be.”
and revolves around allegations the agency’s failed to set water pollution limits for some industrial contaminants. The groups claimed that the EPA violated provisions of the Clean Water Act. In the Minnesota petition, the groups ask the EPA to take action under the authority of the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974.
“I think that their direction to us was actually pretty mild,” Vanderbosch said of the EPA. “They’re coming to us in response to this petition.”
Petersen said it still “frustrates” him when legislators or environmental groups say the state hasn’t “done anything” to curb nitrate in waters.
“Then we can point to a lot of the things that we’ve done, and I’ll continue to be an advocate for everybody in this room for what you’ve done. But there’s also other things that we could be doing,” he said. “It’s always easy to say we’re under attack in agriculture, or the finger is being pointed at us, but I really see this as a tremendous opportunity to really engage on the issue and really tell the story about what farmers are doing.”
Decades of work
Allen-Tully operates a dairy and crop farm with her parents and brother in Eyota, located in southeast Minnesota. She said the EPA’s pressure has renewed interest in nitrates in the groundwater, but it’s something their farm has protected against for years.
“We’ve been working in this space for decades,” Allen-Tully said. “Nitrogen has always been a concern to corn farmers and to our agencies, too.”
She said that cover crops and other practices to manage nitrogen will work into any operation, but it takes some figuring out.
“We have been using cover crops and figuring out how they work effectively for us for probably eight, nine years, and we’ve gone the gamut on how to get them established,” Allen-Tully said. “Cover crops work in our system fairly easy, but there’s an expense and there’s a time crunch in the fall. But it works for us.”
Cover crops work for other area farmers as well, she said.
“It is very common to see cover crops all over southeast Minnesota, and I think some of that’s because we take corn off early for corn silage, and so we have a little bigger window to get a cover crop established,” she said.
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