A day in the field

By Anna Haecherl-Smith


RURAL MILROY – The fifth edition of the University of Minnesota Extension’s Soil and Water Management Field Day was held at the Brian Hicks farm south of Milroy Wednesday.

Dozens of attendees, including farmers, crop consultants, seed dealers, watershed representatives and agency staff from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, gathered at the farm to discuss and learn about drainage management systems and other research being conducted at the Hicks farm.

Jeff Strock, soil scientist with the U of M Southwest Research and Outreach Center in Lamberton, has been working with Hicks to gather agricultural research data for more than 10 years.

Strock said that the main focus of Field Day is finding answers to the question of “how do we maintain high levels of crop production and do it in a sustainable way so we can keep these farms?” Weather variability, crop production and environmental quality were all hot topics at the event. Strock said that everyone involved in the agriculture sector has to ask themselves “how are we going to have farmers earn their livelihood and grow crops while at the same time maintain good water quality and good air quality?”

Field Day started in 2002 and is held every three years. Strock said that this is the second time the event has been at the Hicks farm (the first was in 2008) and that this year they are focusing on the Corn and Soybean Coordinated Ag Project (CSCAP) that did some of its research at the Hicks farm. The CSCAP is one of three $20 million Coordinated Ag Projects currently taking place in the U.S. that look at the effect of major commodity crops on the regional economy. The CSCAP involves nine states across the Corn Belt and involves more than 140 people, from researchers and Extension staff to farmers and agronomists. The other two CAPs include a pine project in the Southeast and a winter wheat project in the Pacific Northwest.

“Initially people thought that when we started this project we were going to be attacking farmers and telling them what they were doing wrong,” Strock said, “when actually our whole goal is to make sure the practices that we are implementing can make resilient and sustainable corn production now and in the future.”

Participants were invited on a hayrack ride to view research areas that included a controlled drainage system Hicks installed in 2009, a weather station setup on native prairie grasslands near the Cottonwood River and a small field with a runoff monitoring system that collects and analyzes surface water samples.

“Farmers have a huge story that we need to tell,” Hicks said. “What we are doing out here isn’t as detrimental as they want you to believe. We want to have a positive impact on the environment.”

State of South Dakota Climatologist Dennis Todey from South Dakota State University in Brookings spoke at the event about weather variability and the increase in the amount of large rain events.

“The biggest change we have seen in our area is water,” Todey said. “Changes have been more precipitation on the front end of the spring and the back end of the fall.” Todey related that larger and more frequent rain events are taking a toll on planting and harvest times, resulting in more erosion and saturation issues.

The event concluded with a panel discussion involving farm owner Hicks, Minnesota Commissioner of Agriculture Dave Frederickson, Commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency John Linc Stine, Director of the National Lab for Ag and the Environment Dr. Jerry Hatfield and Warren Formo with the Minnesota Agricultural Water Resource Center. The panel members answered questions and gave their opinions on what needed to be done to better manage the land.

“If we operate with the best management practices we will have a better state,” Frederickson said. “Take care of the soil, and the soil will take care of you.”

Frederickson said that establishing best management practices for the land is one of the most important agriculture issues today.

“There is an ongoing debate about whose fault it is, and I think we need to get away from that discussion and get down to business about recognizing that we’re all part of the problem and let’s all try to do work to find solutions,” Frederickson said.

Stine said that it’s about solutions that work and that benefit water, land and air quality. Stine said that “what’s important to a person who farms is that they have to make money on their farm or they cannot afford to implement a solution.”

Hatfield suggested that ag research needs to move to a larger scale, not just small test plots and that agriculture is not just isolated to the field.

“It’s about the whole landscape,” Hatfield said. “The biggest issue that ag is going to have to face is the interconnectedness of agriculture in the overall complex of the environment. We’ve got to move our research from the small plot to field-scale and landscape-scale and develop a new system to solve these problems.”

Formo pressed that research needs to be farmer-led and the result of questions from producers. Solutions need to involve more than one thing and involve multiple options for innovative practices as well as be what farmers are interested in doing.

“It seems like we sometimes find a fad,” Formo said. “We’re going to all do no-till now or lately it’s all cover crops. Those are great things, but they’re not the only things. I think sometimes farmers tune out when the message is all about one thing.”