Last week, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton introduced legislation that would require 50-foot buffer strips along all Minnesota waterways, including ditches and waterways that flow only periodically during the year.
The Minnesota Corn Growers Association (MCGA) strongly supports the use of buffer strips. However, MCGA, along with a broad coalition of other grassroots family farm organizations, opposes a portion of the bill that would include a one-size-fits-all buffer strip requirement. Agricultural research shows that a one-size-fits all buffer solution is not the most effective or efficient strategy for improving water quality.
Buffers, grass waterways and control basins are a few of the many best management practices already used by most farmers to protect water quality. I use all of these on my own farm near Northfield, Minn., to protect several waterways that flow near my fields. Each of these practices are designed and sized specifically for their location in a way that maximizes water quality benefits.
But how many non-farmers know that buffer strips are already widely used by Minnesota farmers? How many non-farmers know about the long list of best management practices farmers incorporate in their operations to protect water quality, soil fertility and wildlife habitat?
Judging by media coverage of last week’s buffer legislation, many non-farmers don't have any idea of the widespread conservation practices used by most Minnesota farmers. Who's to blame for this knowledge gap?
In my opinion, it's us. Farmers have not done a good job telling their own conservation story, and we're losing the public perception battle because of it.
Many in the non-farming public don't think farmers do much of anything in the area of conservation. More and more non-farmers think profits, not stewardship, drive the decisions we make. Those perceptions are incorrect, but won't change unless farmers take immediate action to change it themselves.
The first thing farmers can do is simply talk about everything we do in the area of conservation. To farmers, conservation practices like buffer strips, grass waterways and control basins are a normal part of everyday life on the farm. Farmers don't view these as a big deal since it's something they've always done.
But farmers need to think beyond their own fence line when it comes to conservation. Only about 1% of the population farms today, yet just about everybody has questions about farming, especially when it comes to on-farm conservation.
To non-farming residents throughout the state, things like buffer strips and other common conservation practices are a big deal. They want to know what they are, how they work and how farmers use them to protect our resources.
Of course, the perception of farmers isn’t helped when Gov. Dayton –like he did while talking about his buffer legislation last week – accused farmers of creating “cesspools” and used other rhetoric to pit the public against the agricultural community.
But getting drawn into a political game of name-calling isn’t going to solve the public perception issues farmers currently face. Being more proactive will.
I'd like to invite farmers to talk about their conservation efforts during everyday conversations with friends, family and business acquaintances. Be proactive: Participate in community events where you can tell your own conservation story, or speak to local groups about what you’re doing on your farm to become a better steward of the land.
It's up to farmers themselves to take the lead and tell their own conservation story at the grassroots level. Right now, we're letting others tell our story for us. It’s time for farmers to regain control of the public perception battle by standing up and speaking out on their conservation efforts.