BROWNSVILLE, Minn. ― Joan Heim-Welch said she's OK with other farmers knowing she's a "tree-hugger."
Heim-Welch, who was named Root River Soil and Water Conservation District Conservationist of the Year in 2019, manages two farms equaling nearly 600 acres of rolling land in Brownsville, a town on the Mississippi River in southeast Minnesota's Houston County.
She raises beef cattle, row crops, grain, hay and timber — and is one of over 1,000 farmers in Minnesota who've earned certification status through the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program.
The Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program is a voluntary opportunity for farmers to take the lead in implementing conservation practices that protect the state's water. It was signed into statute in 2013, piloted in 2014 and rolled out statewide in the summer of 2015.
The MAWQCP exists through a deep partnership with federal, state and local government entities — Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, Minnesota Department of Agriculture, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service, as well as private business collaborations.
To be certified through MAWQCP, farmers have to follow certain steps in managing their land with the goal of protecting water quality. Regional certification specialists are there to assist landowners through the entire process, including an online assessment tool.
"The Minnesota Agricultural Water Certification Program is really turning out to be a star for Minnesota ," said Thom Petersen Minnesota's agriculture commissioner. "We have great availability of water and we have great availability of soil in Minnesota, but we need to take care of it, and that's where this program really comes into play."
According to the MDA's MAWQCP Story Map, over 1,050 producers and 750,000 acres have been certified through the program. Nearly 2,000 new conservation practices have been implemented through MAWQCP, according to data released in December 2020, reducing around 39,000 C02-equivalent tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year.
"Keeping 216 million pounds of soil on Minnesota fields annually, and preventing 76.2 million pounds of sediment and 47,878 pounds of phosphorous from entering our lakes, rivers, and streams annually," says the MAWQCP website.
An analysis by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency estimates a 49% reduction in nitrogen loss on MAWQCP certified farms.
The MAWQCP also seems to be profitable for some producers, according to data from researchers last year at AgCentric and Minnesota State Agricultural Centers of Excellence, who conducted an analysis of Farm Business Management Program participating farms and found that MAWQCP certified farms had net income 26% higher than non-MAWQCP certified farms.
Brad Redlin, program manager of the MAWQCP, has been with the program since its inception. Redlin said his "first and only position in state government" began in 2012, when the water quality program was first taking off. Prior to that, he was chair of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and director for the Izaak Walton League.
Minnesota isn't the only state to use an environmental verification program, said Redlin, with Michigan, New York, Texas, Louisiana and other states having similar initiatives.
"But none of those plans are at the scale we're at, or with the structure we use," he said.
Redlin said what separates MAWQCP from other environmental incentive programs is its delivery system, funneled through local conservation districts across Minnesota, which have the experts already in the fields.
"It's our state soil and water conservation districts that are the central nervous system, the spinal cord of our of (MAWQCP) operations," Redlin said.
Petersen echoed that.
"I really give a huge shout out to our local (Natural Resources Conservation Service) and soil and water conservation district offices, because they're the ones that are out there, working firsthand with the farmers," Petersen said.
State agencies aren't doing anything special to fuel enrollment in MAWQCP, said Redlin, but rather relying on the personal decisions by producers.
"We don't approach this as a race," he said. "It's definitely grower-led — they are in charge of their certification process, they determine how and when it all occurs."
For some motivated growers, Redlin said all it takes is a couple weeks to achieve certification status, but typically it will take several months to a year.
The producer-driven certification process means the work occurs when a producer has time, and there is no timeline for completing the process. According to a recent survey of MAWQCP certified farmers, 10 hours was the average time a producer spent on efforts to get certified.
What Petersen enjoys most about the program is getting to travel the state and meet with farmers that are certified. A sense of pride comes with the MAWQCP certified signs, which Petersen said are helping to spread the word on the program.
Petersen said farmers want to show him the changes they've made on their farm, and their pride in the practices they've started is obvious.
"They put in things that helped improve water quality on their farm and for their communities," he said.
He said it's great to see the variety in certified operations, from entire thousand-acre operations to farms with just a couple of acres enrolled.
"I don't always plan to visit (MAWQCP) certified farms, but I think in the last year, most of the farms I toured were water quality certified," Petersen said.
With the MAWQCP on target to meet Gov. Tim Walz’s goal of enrolling 1 million acres by the end of 2022, Petersen said there's a lot of interest by other state ag departments
"I'm confident we'll get there," Petersen said of the 1 million-acre goal.
Petersen said in his home county, a celebration within the past year marked 500,000 acres of MAWQCP certified land.
"We invited a lot of farmers that day," Petersen said of the event in Pine County. "And I think a lot of the farmers that came and asked questions are now all certified."
A way of life
All of Heim-Welch's farmland is located on a ridge, therefore vulnerable to erosion. She said she implemented her first conservation practice in 1984, and as far as what conservation techniques she's used in the 37 years since, Heim-Welch can go on for awhile.
"Well there's grade stabilization structures, diversions, ponds, pushup ponds — which is a good one for Houston County," Heim-Welch said on her farm in Brownsville, with her 14-year-old deaf and blind Australian cattle dog by her feet. "Conservation is like a way of life, you really have to be dedicated."
Hence the acceptance of being a "tree-hugger," through the USDA's Conservation Reserve Program, Heim-Welch and her daughter, Tracy, planted 3,000 trees over 8 acres on their land this year. CRP allows farmers to establish resource-conserving plant species to control soil erosion, improve water quality and enhance wildlife habitat on cropland.
"We did it all by shovel and with a tree planter," she said.
Heim-Welch started her transition to full-time farmer when she met her late husband, Arnold, while she was working for Northwestern Bell Telephone Company. They bought their farm in the early '80s and Heim-Welch eventually traded in her job at the telephone company to work the rolling farmland and drive a school bus for Caledonia Area Public Schools.
She kept the bus job for over 30 years and said she loved being able to drive both of her kids to and from school each day, parking the bus at the farm each night.
"I just thought all the conservation practices were just normal, but then she started winning awards like conservationists of the year, and I realized that they were programs that not everyone does," Tracy Heim said. "I thought it was just the way you do farming."
"It's the way your Dad taught me how," Heim-Welch replied to her daughter. "I didn't know anything about it, and just followed in his footsteps."
(This will be the first of a number of stories looking at the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program.)