Yes, you ARE seeing more no-till and cover crops out there.

As I traverse the diverse landscapes of the Lower St. Croix watershed, I can’t help but appreciate the multitude of farms that grace our region. From large-scale commodity crop farms to livestock operations and smaller acreage farmers cultivating diverse crops, our area boasts a remarkable agricultural tapestry. However, farming here presents its own unique challenges, including a shorter growing season and varying soil types that change not just between fields but within them. Farming in of itself is an inherently risky business, but farming in our area is even more so.

Last fall, it was really exciting to see farmers in the basin taking advantage of newly available funding through the Lower St. Croix Watershed Partnership and a subsequent new Clean Water grant to adopt and implement conservation practices that focus on building soil health. The benefits of healthy soil are many, including improved water retention and infiltration, reduced erosion risk, enhanced nutrient availability, heightened resilience against pests and diseases, and stronger resilience to extreme weather events such as floods and droughts.

Some farmers opted for reduced or no-till practices, forgoing plowing in the fall and spring and leaving crop residue on the fields to mitigate erosion. Others ventured into cover cropping, planting additional crops between their primary cash crops to prevent erosion, suppress weeds, and promote nutrient retention. Since last fall, farmers in the basin have enrolled approximately 12,000 acres in different conservation practices, with a predicted reduction in soil erosion of 38,000 tons. This also means 22,000 lbs of phosphorus won’t travel to our nearby lakes, rivers, and streams, and 58,000 lbs of nitrogen won’t leach to our groundwater. That’s no small change!

Conventional tillage (left) versus no-till (right). While your eyes might be drawn to the look offered by conventional tillage versus the ‘messy’ look of the no-till, your soil is much happier and healthier under no-till management.

Nevertheless, we must recognize that for many farmers, incorporating these practices remains an experimental endeavor, even with financial incentives. This spring marks a crucial evaluation of their progress. Can they smoothly transition to planting when then have little experience dealing with crop residue? Are the cover crops emerging as anticipated? How do these practices affect weed management, fertilizer application, and field planting schedules?

To keep tabs on these developments, our agronomist Jennifer Hahn and our local government partners have been closely monitoring the fields alongside the farmers. Encouragingly, there have been notable successes, such as one farmer’s revelation that their ‘new’ no-till field prompted his 82-year-old father to question the need for expensive tilling in their other fields, inspiring a shift towards more no-till practices. Other cases are too soon to call, but farmers are cautiously observing and tackling unforeseen situations as they arise. At this point, none have yet expressed regret for taking the plunge on a new practice.

Amidst the ongoing conservation journeys undertaken by many farmers, we also celebrate those like Jason and Becky May—a second-generation farming couple who farm 1,500 acres near Rush City in Chisago County. Their decade-long commitment to no-till practices in their corn and soybean fields recently earned them certification into the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program (MAWQCP). Beyond public recognition for safeguarding local water resources, certification offers significant advantages for the Mays, including regulatory certainty for as long as they are certified and priority access to technical assistance opportunities. They join 17 other farmers in Chisago County who have achieved MAWQC status.

Lance Petersen, board supervisor of the Chisago SWCD, presents Jason May with his Minnesota Ag Water Qualified sign in April 2023. MAWQCP specialist Ryan Clark (left) looks on. Photo Credit: Jennifer Hahn

The farm fields are abuzz with exciting developments as farmers forge ahead on their conservation paths. It’s a testament to their dedication to both their livelihoods and the preservation of water quality in our lakes, rivers, and streams!

Jason May talks about his farm and no-till management practices.