A paying proposition

MONTEVIDEO -- Cleaning up the Chippewa River could become a profitable proposition for farmers and others in the watershed. That's the idea behind a proposal to make the watershed a model for a concept known as productive conservation. It's all a...

MONTEVIDEO -- Cleaning up the Chippewa River could become a profitable proposition for farmers and others in the watershed.

That's the idea behind a proposal to make the watershed a model for a concept known as productive conservation.

It's all about finding a way to match the economic benefits of local, value-added farming with the environmental benefits of creating more diversity in the landscape, according to Duane Ninneman of Clean Up our River Environment in Montevideo. He is working with landowners and others in the watershed interested in the potential of productive conservation.

He believes the emerging market for renewable energy could make it happen.

Ninneman said the proposal calls for strategically planting perennial crops in target areas where they could do the most good for the watershed. The perennial crops would be a diversified mix, possibly including native grasses and forbs, warm season grasses and alfalfa. They would provide habitat for wildlife. They would also serve to reduce erosion and capture nutrients and wastes before they reach the waterway.


There would be incentives to encourage farmers to plant perennial biomass in the targeted areas, but none would be as important as the free market.

Ninneman believes that a local, value-added economy could be developed that would prove profitable to farmers. They would be able to harvest the biomass as a cash crop to be used for producing energy. It might be processed into a liquid fuel like ethanol.

Or more likely, the biomass could become the fuel for a gasifier that powers other types of industry in the region.

He has been discussing the idea with the University of Minnesota, Morris, where the concept of productive conservation is about to move beyond the talking stage. The Morris campus broke ground this summer on a biomass gasification reactor that will provide the energy to heat and cool about 80 percent of the campus buildings.

The gasifier will primarily use agricultural residue such as corn stover as its fuel, but it is being designed for any type of biomass. It will test the benefits of using biomass such as native prairie and other grasses and forbs gleaned from conservation lands.

Steve Delehanty, with the Morris wetlands office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is helping the University obtain the biomass. He said the project could be an important step towards making conservation profitable to farmers.

Which is exactly what Dennis Gibson, a rural Montevideo farmer and charter founder of the Minnesota Agra-Forestry Cooperative wants to achieve.

He launched the idea to make the Chippewa River watershed the model for productive conservation with a question to Paul Wymar, watershed scientist.


"What would it take to clean up the Chippewa River?''

Today, Wymar advises people not to swim in the river from June through September. Pollution from many sources keeps the river from reaching the water quality standards set for it.

Yet Wymar said his analysis showed that the answer to Gibson's question is within reach. There is a direct correlation between the amount of perennial cover and wetlands in a basin and water quality.

The Chippewa River watershed covers 1,333,400 acres and is one of the most diverse in the Minnesota River basin. It already has about 25 percent of its area in perennial cover and wetlands.

Wymar said his initial analysis showed that if 34 percent of the land -- another 122,950 acres -- were in perennial cover or wetlands, the water quality standards for the river could be met.

But he also realized that much of the pollution comes from specific sub-basins, where intensive row crop production, steep slopes, soil types and other factors make them larger contributors of pollution. By targeting these sub-basins, Wymar said he calculated that water quality standards could be met by converting 61,804 acres to perennial cover.

That represents only 4.6 percent of the watershed, but still, Wymar said he realized right away that there isn't the money available in existing conservation programs to convert that much additional land in the watershed.

That's why he and Ninneman are looking at productive conservation. If farmers could realize the same sort of net earnings from productive conservation acres as they do from corn and soybean acres, they are confident it will be possible to find the 61,804 acres needed.


Ninneman said there are others looking at ideas like this. The "Madelia model'' is the most well-known. It's based on the idea of developing a renewable energy plant in the southeastern Minnesota community that would create a market for locally-raised biomass.

The Chippewa River model differs in that it is focused on one watershed, and consequently would allow for precise measures of the water quality benefits.

Ninneman is optimistic. He points to interest from groups such as the Minnesota Valley Alfalfa Producers and the Minnesota Agra-Forestry Cooperative. He noted that the University of Minnesota, Morris, will be creating a regional biomass market for its gasifier. The Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company is working to develop the infrastructure for a biomass market to fuel the gasifier it is building to help operate its plant in Benson.

But along with these steps in the marketplace, Ninneman said political support will be needed. He is asking state and federal legislators to look at ways they can provide the same safety net to farmers making the transition to biomass production as they now realize raising corn and soybeans.

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