Do you like Kernza® and jam? Would you eat it in a boat? Would you eat it with a goat? Would you try it drenched in milk, ground to flour, or brewed as beer?
Kansas-based nonprofit, The Land Institute, has spent more than 40 years researching and developing new farming strategies to protect soil and water resources while also ensuring that farmers can make a living. Now, the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund is sending grant support to a group of partners in Cold Spring, Minnesota to determine whether one of The Land Institute’s signature crops can help to prevent groundwater contamination in a 36-acre vulnerable wellhead catchment area.
Kernza® is a perennial wheat variety with an extensive root system that reaches more than 10-feet deep underground. The crop is a net sink for atmospheric carbon. Because it is perennial, Kernza® requires less fertilizer and pesticides to grow than annual wheat; it helps to improve soil health and reduce erosion; and it can reduce farmers’ early-season workload by cutting out the need to till and plant. As The Land Institute quips, Kernza® “Tastes great, with less tilling.”
In 2004, University of Minnesota formed a coalition called Green Lands, Blue Waters with 20 organizations in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. The goal is to support the development and implementation of perennial crops, like Kernza®, as well as continuous living cover strategies, such as cover crops, to transform farms across the upper Midwest.
One goal of Green Lands, Blue Waters is to reduce surface and groundwater contamination from nitrate fertilizers. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has found that 3 billion pounds of nitrogen enter our water supply from fertilizer and nutrient-rich soil every year. The amount of nitrogen flowing downstream into the Mississippi River has doubled since 1996 and in some agricultural communities more than 20% of wells are contaminated by nitrates.
In Cold Spring, project partners will be planting 36-acres of land in a vulnerable wellhead catchment area with Kernza®, alfalfa, and native prairie in order to demonstrate one potential strategy for reducing nitrate-groundwater contamination while keeping the land in agricultural production. In other parts of the state, Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) is also promoting a voluntary Agricultural Water Quality Certification program designed to encourage sustainable farming practices that are less likely to pollute lakes, rivers, and groundwater.
In Washington County, 100% of our drinking water supply comes from groundwater. Six years ago, Washington Conservation District worked with MDA and local landowners to sample well water from 504 homes in southern Washington County – 280 in Cottage Grove and 224 in Denmark Twp.. Of the samples tested, 29% of those in Cottage Grove (80 total) and 13% of those in Denmark Twp. (30 total) had too much nitrates. The biggest risk associated with nitrates in drinking water (at or above 10 mg/L) is a disorder called “blue-baby” syndrome, or methemoglobinemia. It affects infants younger than six months old that drink formula mixed with the water and can pose a risk to pregnant women as well. Blue-baby syndrome reduces the oxygen carrying capacity of blood and babies suffering from the illness might turn bluish in color, develop long-term digestive or respiratory problems, or even die.
This year, the Conservation District received a $75,000 grant from the Minnesota Clean Water Fund to provide technical and financial assistance to agricultural landowners to promote nitrogen fertilizer best management practices and implement alternative land management tools in order to better protect drinking water supplies.
Though Kernza® and other perennial crops hold a lot of promise for the future, they still comprise a tiny fraction of the total acres farmed in the United States. There are currently only 107 farmers producing Kernza® on 2,200 acres total. While The Land Institute and Green Lands, Blue Waters continue to develop new crops and farming techniques, Washington Conservation District is working with local farmers to reduce nitrogen fertilizer use in other ways, such as using cover crops and developing nutrient-management plans. To learn more about these practices, contact Angela Defenbaugh at ADefenbaugh@mnwcd.org or request a free site visit at www.mnwcd.org.
To request a well testing kit from Washington County, go to: www.co.washington.mn.us/637/Water-Tests. The Department of Public Health is not accepting water samples currently due to the COVID-19 outbreak but has contact information for several dozen private labs still accepting samples.