Minnesota Soybean Business

Land legacy: MDA’s Water Quality Program marks million-acre milestone

November-December 2023

Paul Freeman is passionate about preserving and improving the land through soil health practices. It’s no wonder why the Starbuck farmer and past president of the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association (MSGA) was an early champion of the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program (MAWQCP) following its formal launch in 2014.

“It always pays to do a good job on your farm,” said Freeman, now a director with the Minnesota Soybean Research & Promotion Council (MSR&PC). “I want to do the right thing. As a farmer, I depend on clean water for my operation. I am a good steward of my land, and if being certified lets Minnesotans know farmers care and are putting in place practices that improve water quality, then I am all for it.”

When Freeman became MSGA president in 2015, he urged MSGA’s lobbying team to continue putting its legislative weight behind the fledgling program, which initially struggled to grow its enrollment among farmers.

“I told (our lobbyists), it’s a good program because it’s voluntary and quantifies the good things we’re doing on our farms,” said Freeman, who later served on MAWQCP’s Advisory Committee and participated in articles about the certification process in Soybean Business. “In ag, we are stewards of the land and when we get a chance to quantify how good a steward we are, that’s very important.”

The backing of farm groups like MSGA didn’t go unnoticed at the time and helped the program gain legislative footing and earn funding through the Farm Bill and Clean Water Legacy Fund.

“The support from (MSGA) was huge,” said former Ag Commissioner Dave Frederickson, who helped lead the program’s creation. “They helped guide the development of the program. You have to have buy-in from the people who are impacted by it.”

Freeman was prescient in his belief that the voluntary program would gain momentum once growers learned of its many benefits – both environmental and economical (four straight years of data now show higher profits of MAWQCP-enrolled farmers).

This fall, MAWQCP exceeded the goal set by Gov. Tim Walz to certify 1 million acres of farmland across Minnesota through conservation practices ranging from cover crops to grassed waterways to irrigation management.

“This proves we don’t have to choose between environmental stewardship and production, and this program is only growing,” Gov. Walz said. “The facts are showing this program really works for Minnesotans.” In nearly every corner of Minnesota, from Hallock to Fairmont, farmer leaders from MSGA and MSR&PC have adjusted their practices to qualify for certification.

Council Director Paul Freeman was an early champion of MAWQCP.

“It’s such a simple and easy program,” said Council Director Rochelle Krusemark, the first Martin County farmer to become certified. “We didn’t have to change much, but becoming certified has certainly helped improve the ways we take care of the land.”

Council Director Kris Folland farms nearly seven hours north of Krusemark in far northwestern Minnesota. He said that conservation transcends geography; all Minnesotans can find common ground on water quality.

“We’re all in this together. This can’t be ‘us versus them,’” said Folland, the first Kittson County farmer to enroll in MAWQCP. “We have to work together and realize water quality is important to everyone in Minnesota.”

In his role as a Council director and member of MAWQCP’s original Advisory Committee, Bill Zurn spread the word about MAWQCP’s impact to not just family and friends, but the agriculture community and general public.

“For the time and effort, it’s very worthwhile,” he said. “This program is proving to the United States and the world that we’re doing good, sustainable and renewable practices here in Minnesota.”

‘A front row seat’ to soil health

Brad Jordahl Redlin didn’t know he was interviewing for a job when he visited with then Commissioner Frederickson in 2012.

“Brad’s the nuts-and-bolts guy of the whole program,” said Frederickson, who served as MDA commissioner from 2011-2019. Frederickson and then Deputy Commissioner Matt Wohlman had bounced around ideas with USDA and then Natural Resources Conservation Service Chief Dave White to establish new ways of managing water quality in agriculture. Eventually, the team settled on creating a new certification program. In January 2012, a memorandum of understanding to form MAWQCP was signed by Gov. Mark Dayton and USDA.

“While the real work goes to the producers who stepped up, you have to give credit to Gov. Dayton,” Frederickson said. “He had good foresight and was on board from Day One. It was the right thing to do.”

MSGA Executive Director Joe Smentek holds the MAWQCP plaque alongside then Gov. Mark Dayton during the 2014 Farmfest. Every farmer enrolled in MAWQCP receives a free plaque.

Conservation colleagues encouraged Jordahl Redlin to join the MAWQCP’s Advisory Committee. He visited Commissioner Frederickson – a family friend – at MDA’s St. Paul headquarters and, to his surprise, left with a job offer. Jordahl Redlin accepted MDA’s newly created position to oversee the conservation program from scratch. Although he’d never worked for a state agency before, Jordahl Redlin was game for the challenge.

“What’s more fun than a front row seat?” said Jordahl Redlin, who grew up on a Montana farm and had a lengthy career writing Farm Bill policy. “I get to see what these great growers are doing and what our fantastic staff is doing.”

In summer 2012, Jordahl Redlin and the Advisory Committee convened for their inaugural meeting. MDA placed a high importance on bringing a coalition of groups to the committee. “The farm groups were central,” Jordahl Redlin said, “and to have MSGA as a leading voice was huge, keeping in mind their constituency.”

In his committee role, Zurn pushed colleagues to factor in the diverse farming practices of Minnesota, how weather and growing patterns differ throughout the state.

“From Rochester to Roseau, there’s a big difference here, and it’s important we understand that,” Zurn said. “It varies so much across our state, and it’s important to stress that.”

The Soil and Water Conservation District and NRCS professionals were – and remain – a crucial resource to guide producers through the enrollment steps.

“We wouldn’t be where we are today without their partnership,” Stearns County farmer Dan Janski said. “It’s been a great relationship.”

Janski Farms tapped into MAWQCP as a resource when their operation wanted to experiment with its production practices. By taking advantage of the program’s technical and financial assistance, Janski found a safety net that gave his operation peace of mind.

MSGA President Bob Worth hosts policy leaders at a MAWQCP event at his Lake Benton farm in September 2023. 

“One of the main reasons we went through the MAWQCP was because we were very nervous about experimenting with multi-species cover crops,” Janski said. Jordahl Redlin credited a small but dedicated staff – including longtime Operations Coordinator Danielle Isaacson – who have always kept their eyes on the soil health prize. “What we do is earn our keep every day,” he said. “It’s been the great work of the people in the field who make this succeed. … The citizens out there are supportive of the program, and it’s resulted in the support of governors and the Legislature and other officials.”

‘Growing and growing’

For over seven years, the MAWQCP’s success story has been told in each issue of Soybean Business, helping to deliver the sustainability message to the publication’s over 20,000 subscribers. Jordahl Redlin said the partnership has helped expand MAWQCP’s reach – from the halls of the Minnesota Legislature to farm events like Farmfest or MN Ag Expo.

“I’ve seen it in so many settings,” he said. “There’s no better place to be than one that’s communicating directly with growers, and there’s not a lot of states that have as respected of a magazine as Soybean Business.”

Minnesota Soybean does its part to communicate the MAWQCP’s guidelines during legislative visits and international trade missions in countries where sustainability is a primary topic of conversation.

“We are so fortunate to have an ag certainty program like ours, because there’s nothing else like it in the country,” said Smentek, who represents MSGA on the current Advisory Committee. “When we’re having meetings with international leaders, we’re always highlighting the program and how our farmers are taking extra steps to improve water quality and soil health.”

Since the beginning, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack has endorsed the program – while wishing his home state of Iowa followed Minnesota’s lead. “Secretary Vilsack used to tell me, ‘I wanted this in Iowa but couldn’t get it through,’” Frederickson said. “He’s always been very supportive and positive about it.”

The MAWQCP isn’t resting on its laurels. In many ways, the first million certified acres signifies the start of the program’s potential — Minnesota’s roughly 73,000 farmers operate on about 25 million acres.

“On water quality issues, you do it an acre, a watershed, a township at a time,” Frederickson said. “You do it individually across the state. … If we could get all the farmers in the state into the program, what a difference we could make.”

Current MDA Commissioner Thom Petersen chuckled while recalling the initial difficulties enrolling farmers during his previous position with Minnesota Farmers Union. Thanks to a positive word of mouth among farmers and a team approach at MDA, those days are a distant memory.

“For a while we had like five farmers (enrolled). And then we had 20,” he said. “It’s kept growing and growing, and it’s been very exciting to see.”

To become enrolled, visit mylandmylegacy.com


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