Minnesota gets a bad report card for nitrate reduction (part two)

by Trevor Russell
Only a fraction of our agricultural lands employ cover crops or perennial grains. If more did, we could significantly reduce water pollution. (NRCS/SWCS photo by Lynn Betts)

Minnesota recently released its nutrient reduction report card. In part one of our overview from October 2020, we looked at the results and discussed why nutrient pollution matters to the health of our Mississippi River. In this follow-up, we'll detail what we can do to turn things around.

How do we get a better grade? By changing the mix of what we grow.

A bad report card

Minnesota's state-approved nutrient reduction goals seek to reduce nutrient pollution from their 2020 levels 25% by 2025, and 45% by 2040.

But as the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s recent five-year progress report on Minnesota’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy shows, we’re making very little progress on addressing one of the main sources: agricultural runoff pollution. Of the five main categories of agricultural activity listed in the report card, Minnesota has made between 1 and 11 percent of the progress we need to make by 2025. And we are nowhere close to on-track for our long-term goals.

As noted in the first half of this overview, this isn’t farmers' fault.

Annual row crops like corn and soybeans, even when grown with maximum precision, just aren’t very good at holding nutrients like nitrate on the land. By nature, they're too "leaky," whether it's leaching excess nitrate or excess water that contributes to downstream erosion and sediment pollution.

If left as they are, these systems are simply incompatible with our conservation goals.

It’s time to look beyond how we farm and begin to focus on what we farm.

Growing for cleaner water

According to the report, we can reach our 2045 nutrient pollution reduction goals by massively increasing the number of soy and corn acres with perennial and cover crops on them by an estimated 10 to 12 million acres. (1) 

And that acreage target doesn’t account for the future increases in nitrate loss we can already expect due to the impacts of climate change and extreme weather events. Therefore, we’ll need even more acreage to achieve clean water long-term.

But whether we need 10 million, 12 million or perhaps even 15 million acres of more living cover or year-round vegetation, we know what must be done ... and that we’ve got a long way to go.

So, how do we get there? Well, unfortunately, we can’t buy our way to clean water.

Traditional cost-sharing programs don’t add up

Many initiatives that address agricultural water quality pay farmers and farm operators to plant cover crops or perennial crops. This has been effective at small scale, but the cold truth is that this approach is far too expensive to adopt at the scale Minnesota needs.  

Let’s examine one high-profile example: Maryland’s cover crop incentive program.

Maryland provides farmers or farm operators with direct incentives to plant cover crops. They've been relatively successful, securing 488,000 acres of cover crops last year at a little over $26.5 million in taxpayer funds.  

But here's what it would cost (at their funding levels) to cover the 10-15 million acres needed in Minnesota:

  • Minimum cost ($40/acre, 10 million acres):  $400 million. Every year.
  • Middle or average cost ($54/acre, 12 million acres):  $648 million. Every year.
  • Maximum cost ($65/acre [2021], 15 million acres): $975 million. Every year. 

These incentives are on par with many other states' across the nation. 

As you can see, for Minnesota, with so much ground to literally cover, the price tag is just too high — especially as an annual public expense.

And while this is just one example, its lessons hold true with other traditional approaches. It just isn't feasible to rely on incentive payments alone to move the needle on our water quality problems

If we want new results here in Minnesota, we have to consider more than these old strategies. 

A real solution: profitable landscape cover

Now, imagine if the crops themselves acted like conservation practices, but also profited farmers.

If we invest in developing new markets for cropping systems that feature perennial and cover crops, we'll be able to do exactly this on the scale that we need, providing benefits to farmers while helping Minnesota achieve our environmental goals. 

Minnesota researchers and innovative farmers are developing economically viable cover crops and perennial crop options to reduce runoff pollution while maintaining or enhancing farm prosperity.

Here are a few of the crops currently under development and making their way onto Minnesota croplands:

Potential new clean-water crops
(Table from The University of Minnesota Forever Green Crop Summaries)

These crops produce dramatic improvements in water quality — some as much as 90%! They're also climate-resilient and they improve pollinator, habitat and soil health. But most importantly they can be harvested and sold for profit, right now, across Minnesota.

So how do we help these crops take off? We turn to the Forever Green Initiative & Forever Green Partnership.

  • The Forever Green Initiative (FGI): The University of Minnesota Forever Green Initiative (FGI) is a plant research and development program essential to the success of the clean-water crops approach. Through it, Minnesota can accelerate our development of economically viable winter annual and perennial crop options for farmers that reduce runoff pollution and habitat loss.
  • Forever Green Partnership (FGP): The Forever Green Partnership (FGP) aims to bring together allies from across the agricultural and environmental spectrum to advance the vision of Forever Green. By bringing multi-sector leadership together, we can build a strong, sustainable vision to fundamentally transform our region’s agricultural landscape.

Moving Forever Green forward is an ambitious effort, and we are incredibly excited about the transformative potential of the partnership. For the past several years, FMR and our allies have been hard at work securing funding for the initiatives at the state and federal level.

Support for Forever Green has long been a top priority for FMR's water program. And FMR staff have been instrumental in helping to launch the Forever Green Partnership. We're on the FGP Steering Committee and core organizing team.

While these landscape changes won’t happen overnight, we're truly optimistic about the future of Forever Green crops and cropping systems in Minnesota, and we look forward to much better water quality report cards in the years to come.

You can help

One great way to help us advance this work is to sign up as a River Guardian. We'll email you when there's a chance to act quickly online for the river on issues like this. Plus, you'll be invited to special events like educational happy hours (online for now and in person…eventually).


Read more from the water blog.


(1) Of the approximately 16 million acres of corn and soybean row crops statewide.