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Where's the water going?

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Water flows into this structure and is measured to see what is coming off the field as part of a Discovery Farms Minnesota project on the Schafer farm near Goodhue.

Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment dollars are helping farmers discover what is actually leaving their fields.

A Friday bus tour organized by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture showcased two field-monitoring projects, one in Goodhue County and the other in Mower County.

In Goodhue County, Schafer Farms Inc. is a Discovery Farms Minnesota site. A 6-acre area with 5-percent to 7-percent slope drains through a rectangle-shaped box, called a flume, specially designed for monitoring runoff. Both flow of runoff and what’s in the runoff are measured.  Nitrogen, phosphorus and total suspended solids are measured, said Scott Matteson, a Department of Agriculture employee who works with Discovery Farms.

Discovery Farms is a relatively new concept in Minnesota where monitoring equipment is installed on working farms in the state to gather actual field data on flow and runoff. There are six Discovery Farms in Minnesota, and the goal is to have one in each of the state’s different agricultural production areas.

Before the installation of Discovery Farms, models were used to determine what was leaving farm fields.

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It costs $19,000 to install monitoring equipment at each site, Matteson said, plus an additional $10,000 if tile water is monitored as well. Yearly costs are incurred for runoff analysis and labor. Each farmer makes a five- to seven-year commitment to the program.

At Schafer Farms, they will continue farming as they have been and look forward to finding out what the data shows, said Brandon Schafer.

The monitoring equipment was installed in September 2010, so they don’t have any data yet, however Matteson said 95 percent of the flow through the flume this year occurred in February and March.

For the 2010-11 biennium, $250,000 of Clean Water, Land and Legacy dollars are targeted toward Discovery Farms.

Field to Stream

The tour group of more than 40, which included Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Commissioner Paul Aasen, Agriculture Commissioner David Frederickson, Department of Natural Resources assistant commissioner Erika Rivers and several lawmakers, then traveled south to Mower County to view the Root River Field to Stream Partnership.

There are four edge-of-field monitoring sites in the diverse watershed, combined with stream monitoring. The goal is to determine both what’s coming off the farm field and what’s entering the water to see if there is a connection.

The monitoring equipment was installed in fall 2009, said Adam Birr from the Department of Agriculture. Preliminary data gathered from March through October 2010 found that sediment loss at the sites varied from 0.3 pounds per acre to 700 pounds per acre.

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Participating farmers said they were hesitant at first to be involved, but decided to volunteer their land to learn more about what is actually leaving their farms.

"We live here," Wayne Dewall said. "Water quality is important to us. We drink the water."

Richard Johnson agreed and added that it doesn’t make good business sense to over-apply nutrients because if they leave the field, they do his crops no good.

What makes sense economically and for the environment often goes hand-in-hand, he said.

The Root River Field to Stream Partnership received a one-time appropriation of $395,000 from the Clean Water, Land and Legacy funds.

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