A new fertilizer containment system is being built at Collins Farms in Murdock, Minn. The structure will protect the environment in the event of a spill. “We didn’t have to do this,” Nathan Collins says, “but we thought we should.”
The improvement grew out of a voluntary environmental self-assessment, which helped Nathan and his brother Sean judge the effects of their farming practices on water and soil quality. The self-assessment, called Green Star Farms Initiative, is a free, Web-based tool that asks farmers to rate their stewardship practices for crops, livestock and farmstead management.
“It makes you think about everything you are doing to make sure there is sound science behind it,” says Collins, who raises corn, soybeans and cattle with his brother. They also operate custom forage harvesting and trucking businesses.
In addition to the new containment system, the self-assessment prompted the Collinses to test field drainage water for nitrates and work toward eliminating open tile intakes.
Minnesota’s Green Star Farms is one of several voluntary environmental assessment programs that have sprung up across the Farm Belt, driven by public concerns about agriculture’s role in water pollution. These initiatives range from detailed on-farm evaluations, such as Michigan’s Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP) to simpler online assessments, such as Green Star Farms and Field to Market’s Fieldprint Calculator.
All these tools help growers identify their environmental risks and encourage sound conservation practices, says Adam Birr, executive director of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association. “Farmers can look at their operations and see where they are doing things well and where there are opportunities to improve.”
Data collected from environmental assessment programs can also show the public how farmers are working to protect the land and water, says Rod Snyder, president of Washington, D.C.-based Field to Market: The Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture. “This is an opportunity to tell a positive story about American farmers.”
Simple, yet meaningful
The Green Star Farms assessment, available in Minnesota and Wisconsin, is “simple enough not to overburden a farmer, yet meaningful,” says Jeremy Geske, a watershed education specialist with the farmer-led Minnesota Agricultural Water Resources Center, which created the tool one year ago. “It’s designed to be educational and to stimulate thought about water quality.”
Growers examine their practices in 33 areas that could affect water quality, including nutrient and pest management, soil conservation, drainage, irrigation, livestock and manure handling systems and farmstead safety. “It’s easy to use and very thorough,” Nathan says.
At the end of the assessment, growers get a summary report of their environmental risks, along with comparisons to local and state benchmarks. Every farmer’s data is confidential, Geske says, and there are no government agencies involved.
Growers who want to take their evaluation to the next level can request a third-party review. The Collinses’ reviewer spent about three hours on a farm walk-through and told them, “You’re doing better than you think,” Nathan says.
Collins Farms scored well in nutrient management, one area where farmers often give themselves lower marks, Geske says. “Nitrates can be a real challenge. Even on the best-managed farms, we can lose nitrates if we get rain at an inopportune time.”
In the decade that Sean and Nathan have been farming together, they’ve cut their nitrogen rates nearly in half. Sean, an agronomist, prepares an annual written nutrient management plan for every field. They shifted from total fall nitrogen to split applications, and they incorporate phosphorus and potassium – all practices that lower environmental risk. Now, they are pattern tiling their heavy clay soils, which dramatically cuts runoff and sediment loss, Nathan says.
On-farm assessments go in depth
Michigan’s risk assessment program, launched in 1997, is one of the first – and most comprehensive – voluntary environmental evaluations. The confidential program teaches farmers how to identify and prevent pollution risks and comply with state and federal laws, says Janice Wilford, Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program manager.
Working with a qualified conservation district technician or consultant and a detailed set of management standards, farmers scrutinize their operation’s environmental impact. Then they devise voluntary, economically practical solutions to lower their pollution risks. Farms that meet the standards can become MAEAP-verified, if they choose.
Hundreds of Michigan farmers complete the risk assessment each year. It’s especially useful for improving nutrient management, Wilford says. “That can save farmers dollars while having a positive impact on the environment.”
Do these voluntary assessments translate into improved soil and water quality?
Among MAEAP-verified Michigan farms, sediment losses dropped by 874,000 tons during the last three years, Wilford says. Phosphorus (P) losses were reduced by 1.5 million pounds and N losses fell by 3.4 million pounds – enough N and P to grow almost half-a-million tons of algae.
Farmers who protect their land and water are also protecting their livelihoods, Nathan says. “If you’re not a steward of your land – if you’re not sustainable – how are your kids going to farm?”