BENSON --If 10 percent of the lands now used to produce annual crops like corn and soybeans were instead converted to pasture or perennial cover like alfalfa, the Chippewa River would run clear and clean.
Can it be done in a way that adds to the profitability of farms in the basin?
That's what the Chippewa River Watershed Project aims to achieve with its newly-launched "Chippewa 10 percent Project.'' It's working in partnership with the North Central Soil and Conservation Research Laboratory, the University of Minnesota, Morris, and Land Stewardship Project.
The crux of the project is to help farmers find profitable ways to convert lands better suited for perennial cover, and to minimize or manage any risks they take by doing so, according to the project's participants.
"It needs to be a private, for-profit model,'' said Paul Wymar, scientist with the watershed project, as the new effort was announced Thursday at the Helen and Don Berheim farm north of Benson. The farm was presented as one model of what could happen: Some 110 to 120 acres of hilly, erosion prone lands here were converted from row crop production to perennial grasses and now support a profitable livestock operation.
The project is the result of a question posed by a farmer to Wymar in 2007. "What would it take to clean up the Chippewa River?''
Wymar knew that water quality was best in those areas where there was more diversity and a greater share of perennial cover. His calculations showed him that adding 10 percent more perennial cover within the basin would restore water quality.
But he readily admits it is a big task. The basin covers 1.3 million acres, meaning that some 130,000 acres of tilled land will need to be converted.
Currently, about 74 percent of the lands within the basin are in row crop production, while the remainder is covered by perennial cover, some as pasture and alfalfa, or as conservation grasslands, natural wetlands and woodlands.
Wymar said finding profitable, but new ways to keep "working lands working'' is the best means to reach the goal. He said there is no way the government would be able to fund efforts to enroll that much new land in conservation programs.
Nor do the sponsors want to see that happen. Keeping land in production and increasing the number of farmers in the basin is among the goals, according to Kylene Olson, director of the watershed project.
A number of farmers in the basin have volunteered to help spearhead the project, she added.
The University and Land Stewardship will provide one-on-one, technical help for interested farmers. They can help identify the lands best suited for conversion, and to provide an economic analysis for individual operations.
The project participants also will help farmers work together. For example, if a farmer wants to convert a small area into pasture, they will find a livestock producer interested in leasing it.
There is optimism that there will be interest in converting lands in the basin, according to participants. The rising cost of farm land has many farmers in the basin looking at new ways to make money on their existing lands so that their children can become part of their farming operations.
Also, many are aware of the profits that can be found in the growing consumer movement towards locally-raised meats and other foods. "The market is there and it is growing. It is getting pretty demanding,'' said Jim VanDerPol, whose family direct markets pork raised on the Pastures A Plenty farm near Kerkhoven.
The University of Minnesota at Morris will also be supporting the project as a potential market. It will be buying biomass for a new gasifier to provide steam heat for its campus. It has also set a goal of turning to locally-raised foods for 50 percent of the foods served on campus within the next two to three years.