RENVILLE - Being the first in the neighborhood to try something new isn't easy.

"It was tough to hear all the negative comments from the people who'd stop in your yard and tell you you were nuts,'' said Brian Ryberg, who farms in the Buffalo Lake area in eastern Renville County.

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Ryberg was talking about the reaction he first received when he began experimenting with cover crops and reduced tillage practices. He was among six farmers who told their stories last week at the community center in Renville to other producers from around the region. Their presentation was part of what's become an annual winter event hosted by the Hawk Creek Watershed Project and the Renville County Soil and Water Conservation District.

Year by year, interest continues to grow in both reduced tillage practices and the use of cover crops, said Holly Hatlewick, district administrator for the Renville County SWCD. That more farmers are willing to experiment is encouraging, she said. "Particularly with the economics of farming right now," she added.

The SWCD and Hawk Creek Watershed Project are working to encourage more farmers to try cover crops and reduced tillage practices for the environmental benefits they provide. Farmers enrolled 1,900 acres in the county in a cost-share program for cover crops offered by the Soil and Water Conservation District last year. Cover crops and reduced tillage practices both serve to improve soil health, while allowing for better water infiltration and less erosion.

Hatlewick said farmers have to know that the economics of cover crops and reduced tillage work for them if they are to adopt the practices.

The producers speaking Feb. 12 in Renville reported they are maintaining and sometimes improving on the yields they realized with conventional practices. They also cited economic advantages: Reduced costs for machinery topped the list.

"Your investment is less,'' said Dave Wordes, a Renville County farmer. He started experimenting with reduced tillage practices nearly two decades ago. With a young family, he also wanted to trim some of the time he spent in the tractor seat.

The new buffer law and public discussion about water quality have many farmers looking at what they can do. That is also leading many to consider cover crops and reduced tillage, Hatlewick said.

Brad Carlson, University of Minnesota extension crops educator, addressed the producers about efforts to reduce nitrogen runoff into waterways and aquifers. He emphasized that the most effective means of reducing nitrogen is also best for the bottom line. Following the economic optimum rate developed by the University and proper application timing work best of all.

Cover crops hold a lot of promise for helping Minnesota address the nitrogen issue as well, according to Carlson. He pointed out that Minnesota has committed to reducing its contribution of nitrogen to the Mississippi River by 20 percent by 2025, a goal he is not sure the state can meet.

Cover crops might be what it takes to get there, if it can be figured out, he said. All of the panelists spoke about how they experiment and adapt to their particular lands and goals.

Challenging, yes, said Ryberg, but it's also part of what he likes. "It's made farming fun again," he said.

He and other producers said the environmental benefits they see on their own lands are also a big incentive for them.

Joel Rauenhorst, who farms outside of Easton in the Blue Earth area, was among those who spoke about the reduction in wind- and water-caused erosion he witnessed. He believes the use of cover crops and reduced tillage are a needed paradigm change for agriculture.

"It's the next big step we need to take,'' he said.

More farmers are certainly considering it. Ryberg doesn't have to cringe so much when neighbors drive into his farm yard today. They see that his efforts are working. Now some are thinking, "maybe I should try that," he said.