Water Quality Certification Program Helps to Nudge Minnesota Farmers in a New Direction

Pam Arnold grew up helping out on her grandmother’s farm, nestled close to the river in Marine on St. Croix. Arnold remembers her grandmother as a trendsetter. She worked as a doctor at a time when few women pursued careers outside the home, and hired the first licensed female architect in Minnesota to design her riverfront home. She was also an advocate for the river who eventually deeded much of her land to the National Park Service to preserve undeveloped for future generations.

Today, Arnold is somewhat of a trendsetter herself. She farms just over 40-acres of land along the St. Croix River in Scandia and has become an advocate for the river and other environmental concerns. She raises bees and is in the process of transitioning the farm from row crops to perennial grasslands. “I wanted the GMO [genetically modified] crops off our fields completely because we had a couple of bee kills traced back to pesticide applications on an adjacent field.” So, she worked with the Washington Conservation District and Carnelian-Marine-St. Croix Watershed District to plant cover crops on the fields. Building up soil health, however, has proven to be more difficult than just planting a few cover crops. “The issues are way more complex than they seem,” she says.

After planting cover crops on her fields, Arnold hosted a field day at her farm for other local producers to learn about cover crops.

Last year, Arnold attended a breakfast for Washington County farmers in which Conservation District staff introduced a new Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program, developed by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. Initially, Arnold says she wasn’t very interested. However, she soon realized that the program could help her to finally make the transition from cover crop fields to rotational grazing. “Now I’ve got access to trained agronomists from the Department of Ag who can give me advice on how to interpret soil tests, how and when to apply organic fertilizers, and how to increase the organic content in my soil.” The certification also puts her in a better position to qualify for funding through the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

The Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification is a voluntary program designed to encourage sustainable farming practices that are less likely to pollute lakes and rivers. Farmers who implement and maintain approved farm management practices become certified and obtain regulatory certainty for a period of ten years. In Washington County, more than 30 farmers have participated in the program so far.

According to Arnold, many of the farming practices recommended by the program seem like commonsense. “Most organic farmers are used to thinking this way anyway. You don’t look for a simple fix – you think of everything as a system.” At the same time, she appreciates the new information she’s gained from testing the soil and inputs to her fields. “It’s not an opinion. It’s a quantification, not a qualification, which is a good mindset to get into.” Already, she’s planning for the future and thinking about how to create a closed-loop system on her farm, where livestock will help to replenish nutrients in the soil, and rainwater soaks will into the ground, instead of running off into the river.

In addition to the statewide certification program, Soil and Water Conservation Districts and Watershed Districts are often able to provide farmers with funding and technical assistance to install projects that reduce runoff pollution and protect local lakes and streams. In 2017, the Comfort Lake – Forest Lake Watershed District completed a $536,605 wetland restoration project in southern Chisago County that will ultimately result in cleaner water for Moody and Bone Lakes. Part of the project included working with a nearby farmer to install fencing and a cattle crossing to protect wetland vegetation and prevent soil erosion. In southern Washington County, Washington Conservation District has partnered with the St. Croix River Association and the Valley Branch and South Washington Watershed Districts to help farmers install sediment basins and grassed waterways to limit erosion along the St. Croix River bluff.  Funding is also available in Chisago and Washington Counties for nutrient management plans, cover crops, and innovative practices such as iron-enhanced sand filters that pull phosphorus out of field runoff.

In southern Chisago County, the Comfort Lake – Forest Lake Watershed District has worked with farmers near Moody Lake to restore wetlands and reduce runoff pollution.

Pam Arnold hopes that more Minnesota farms will begin making the transition toward sustainable farming. “We need to change,” she says, “not just for ourselves, but for future generations.”

To learn more about the MN Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program, contact: