Lower St. Croix Watershed Partnership ramps up support for local farmers

As part of a comprehensive plan to improve water quality in the St. Croix River and surrounding lakes, the Lower St. Croix Watershed Partnership is ramping up support to farmers and producers in Anoka, Chisago, Isanti, Pine and Washington Counties this summer. In addition to hiring a new Minnesota Extension agronomist, Jennifer Hahn, to serve the region, the partnership is hosting workshops for large and small-scale farmers; offering incentive payments for cover crops, nutrient management, prescribed grazing and tillage management; and conducting listening sessions with beginning farmers at Big River Farms in May Twp. 

Jennifer Hahn, a new University of Minnesota Extension agronomist working in the Lower St. Croix Watershed, talks about tillage practices including no-till and strip till.

Hahn grew up on a dairy farm in Chisago County that now grows corn and soybeans, and has spent the first two months of her job driving up and down dusty country roads, meeting with farmers and conservation professionals, and re-acquainting herself with the rolling hills and fertile fields of the St. Croix watershed. “Some people think it’s impossible to implement cover crops and no-till in Minnesota,” she says, “but we’ve got farmers here that are using both practices effectively to maintain good yields and improve soil health.”

Planting corn in a vertically tilled field in Chisago County.

The Lower St. Croix Watershed Partnership has allocated $100,000 in state Clean Water Funds to support practices such as cover crops and no-till that reduce erosion and keep phosphorus and nitrogen in fields and out of lakes and rivers. Farmers can apply to receive $50-60/acre/year for cover crops, $20/acre/year for nutrient management, $40/acre/year for prescribed grazing, and $10-20/acre/year for conservation tillage, no-till and strip till. In Washington County, the priority will be land that drains to the St. Croix River; Browns Creek (Grant and Stillwater), Trout Brook (Afton), and small streams along the St. Croix River; and Big Carnelian, Big Marine, Edith, Elmo, Forest, Little Carnelian, Louise, and Square Lakes.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are numerous small-scale farmers in the region who are growing produce, operating hobby farms, and homesteading. For these people, the Washington Conservation District and other Lower St. Croix Watershed partners can help to develop conservation plans, trouble-shoot problems with drainage and invasive species, or advise on how to restore prairie, wetland and woodland habitat.

One new effort this year will focus on beginning farmers at Big River Farms in May Twp., a nonprofit organization that offers land access and education in organic agriculture for immigrants, refugees, people of color, and others who have historically faced discrimination in accessing farmland, markets, education and other farming support. This spring, Washington Conservation District received a $10,000 planning grant from National Association of Conservation Districts to conduct listening sessions with farmers in the program, provide training, and identify opportunities for future collaboration.

Farmers at Big River Farms in May Twp. manage 1/8 to 6-acre plots of certified organic land while learning farming and conservation basics. Photo from Big River Farms.

Located within the Wilder Forest in May Township, Big River Farms, the surrounding forest, and adjacent land are part of the largest tract of undeveloped land in Washington County and have been identified by Washington County and the Carnelian-Marine-St. Croix Watershed District as a high priority for habitat and water quality protection. The farm has been in operation since 2005 and provides farmers with mentorship and guidance in managing their own 1/8 to 6-acre plots of certified organic land. 

To learn more about available programs for farmers or request a free site visit in Washington County, sign-up online at www.mnwcd.org. There are also two upcoming workshops for large and small-scale farmers.

Rooting into Resilient Soils: Friday, June 24, 3-5:30pm at 11340 Oakgreen Avenue South. Farmer Tim Behrends will host a field day, during which he will talk about his experience adopting no-till, cover crops, and other soil health practices. The event will include a roundtable discussion with other area producers and opportunities for conversation and idea sharing. RSVP to Jennifer Hahn at 651-485-7848 or jhahn@umn.edu.

You’ve got Land: Exploring farming and land management options for 10-40 acres: Monday, Aug. 1, 2-5pm at Lindstrom Community Center. Meet with local farmers during this 3-hour workshop for people who are in the beginning and exploratory stages of land-based living. RSVP to Barbara Heitkamp at bheitkamp@mnwcd.org.