NORTHFIELD — For more than a decade, Minnesota farmers and ag officials have confronted climate change. Now they have more data than ever to help them.  

Commissioners from the Department of Agriculture, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the Board of Water and Soil Resources were on hand Thursday to release new information at Twin Oaks farm in Northfield. 

Unveiled were new reports by the MPCA and BWSR that examine the impact that the state's agriculture industry has on climate change. The main takeaway from both reviews were that farmers can use a variety of methods to reduce emissions and improve water quality.

The meetup began in a crisp fall morning that turned into a warm and bright afternoon as the group went into the field to see some methods being used at the farm operated by Mike Peterson and his wife and two sons. The family raises corn and soybeans on about 800 acres, and the farm is certified through MDA's water certification program. 

Mike Peterson said he and his family are responsible for about 43 million square feet of topsoil, giving them incentive to preserve what's in the ground.

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"There's all kinds of reasons to try to keep our investment out of the streams and rivers, and keep us productive," he said.

Peterson explained how they recently harvested a stretch of corn planted in an area with interseeding, which means cover crops growing between standing corn. The results, he said, turned them into believers of the practice.

According to information in the new reports, conservation practices like interseeding can reduce 36,000 tons of CO2 emissions each year. That's the equivalent of taking about 7,000 cars off the road, said Whitney Place, assistant commissioner for the MDA

Farmers on the front-line

"We all know that farmers are facing the effects of climate change today," said Place. "Minnesota farmers are growing more food on fewer acres, in more variable climate patterns, with increased disease and pest pressures."

Place's father is a farmer in southwest Minnesota, and she said for the first time ever, he didn't plant a seed this year because the fields were too wet.

"We have soybeans sitting in snow, and sugar beets and potatoes in standing water," said Place of Minnesota farms across the state. "Farmers are really facing the brunt of some of these climate affects."

But instead of just taking the brunt of climate change, farmers are now part of the solution, said Place.

There are more than 800 farms that have been certified through the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program, according to the MDA. That amounts to more than 500,000 acres where conservation practices are being used, helping to keep 45,000 pounds of phosphorus out of Minnesota's lakes, rivers and streams each year, she said.

Premium resources to protect

Soil and water are resources that Minnesota currently has in abundance, said John Jaschke, executive director of soil resources for BWSR.

"We're one of the few places where those two things -- water and soil, are both of high quality," said Jaschke of Minnesota. "Iowa's got some good soil, but they don't have the water we've got."

And in places with high quality water, like the Yukon Territory, the soil doesn't compare to Minnesota's.

"In ten, a hundred or thousand years from now, Minnesota is going to be a place on earth that's going to be as important as any place we've got," he said. "So we have to take care of it, and our farmers are among those who'll be the biggest factors in making that happen.

Climate is culpable, not farmers

Farmers are not the enemy, Peterson said is the message that farmers want to get across about conservation to the rest of the state.

"We're not trying to poison or pollute anybody," he said.

The public needs to understand that change happens incrementally on the farm. Producers "can't commit economic suicide by jumping into things too quick," he said. "There's a lot of good stewards out here who've already proven some of the viability of soil health and conservation practices."

Peterson said he expects the conservation movement to pick up steam.

"It's like a drop in a pool of water -- I feel it's a ripple effect," said Peterson. "I think the benefits are going to be immense once we get going forward fighting whatever the climate has to throw at us."