Protecting our planet doesn’t have to come at the expense of our food supply, nor the people who make it possible. In Minnesota, we’re working to build sustainable food systems that will nourish people and protect the environment.
Our state has a legacy of leadership in agriculture and we're home to some of the largest and most successful food and agriculture companies in the world. Our farmers, agri-businesses, universities and government agencies have set the standard for innovation in agriculture.
In Minnesota alone, our farmers support a $17 billion agriculture industry—ranking fifth for food production in the nation.
We're proud of Minnesota’s thriving agriculture economy and our place as industry leaders. Unfortunately, runoff to our lakes and rivers has increased markedly in recent years due to population growth, changing land use and increasingly extreme weather. But these challenges also present opportunities to shift our thinking and work with nature.
The science tells us that adoption of soil health practices—like cover cropping and reduced tillage—can increase farm profitability, tackle climate change and improve water quality.
Minnesota Farmers Making a Difference
A few years ago, Tom Griebel noticed something was wrong with his soil. “It seemed more like dirt,” he says.
Tom decided to plant cover crops which protect fields from erosion and nourish soil fauna. Over time, he notes, "the soil has gotten better.”
After trying cover crops, Griebel also began to pursue no-till practices, a technique of growing crops without disturbing the soil through tillage. Although there is specialized equipment to support no-till farming, Griebel says, “I do not have a special planter. I have to drive slower and check more regularly and make adjustments. You have to manage it a lot more.”
Griebel explains that better soil fertility leads to higher yields and income. “As soil health goes up, we can lower the inputs, fertilizer and things like that, even natural fertilizer like manure.” Griebel has been able to reduce his expenditures and improve profitability.
Kristin Weeks Duncanson
Kristin Weeks Duncanson, along with her husband Pat, owns and manages Highland Family Farms with the help of their children Ben and Gabe. Their operation is larger than average and produces corn, soybeans, pork and cereal rye for a local distillery.
Kristin is also a consultant who helps farms build and implement sustainability plans. She practices what she preaches and actively pursues sustainable solutions on her family’s farm.
To reduce their environmental impact, Highland is working to incorporate cover crops and advance no-till and low-till practices. "We're having to think differently as the climate is obviously affecting us differently than it had," she says.
Kristin says their sustainability plan includes three pillars: "profitability, environment and community.”
When Matt Hanson was growing up, it was not unusual for the family farm to flood once a year or so, typically early in the season. Today, it’s not unusual to get a midsummer flood—significant flooding, two to three feet deep across several acres. It’s also no longer unusual for the farm to flood more than once in a season. One year, Hanson recalls, “it flooded four times.”
Hanson planted cover crops to reduce erosion during the fallow season between main crops and to protect water quality in the Root River. Cattle can also graze on cover crops later in the season, reducing feed costs and saving labor.
Hanson also pursued flood mitigation strategies along the Root’s riverbed and placed conservation easements on the floodplain to protect the land where it was ill-suited for farming. He followed up by installing a thick bank of natural grasses on 80 acres along the river, which cost about $300 an acre to plant. He worried they’d be washed away, but they took hold and have survived several floods.
Hanson no longer fishes, but when he’s checking on his cows, he sometimes visits with people who are fishing at these sites. He’s learned that trout and bass flourish here— a significant improvement over the carp and suckers he reeled in with his grandfather. “If you’ve got less dirt in the water, the trout survive better,” Hanson says.
Enrich Lands, Protect the Environment
Many of the practices that have become commonplace have led to degraded soil health, putting our waters at risk and compromising the long-term productivity and resiliency of our farmlands.
We need new food systems that can sustain us into the future. Systems that tackle climate change by storing more carbon in the ground, improve water quality and reduce flooding, and provide habitat for fish and wildlife—all while increasing crop production.
By taking advantage of soil health, nutrient stewardship and edge-of-field practices, Minnesota's ag community can have a transformational impact on water, the climate and the ag economy. At the farm level, these practices boost productivity and profitability. At a societal level, the benefits of healthier soils include better water quality, filtration and storage, as well as carbon sequestration.
How We Work on Sustainable Agriculture
- Sustainable Practices: We're demonstrating and communicating the economic value and environmental performance of soil health, nutrient management and edge-of-field practices like wetland restorations. Examples include the Root River Field to Stream Partnership and All Acres for Our Water in Stearns County.
- Farmer Advisors: We're working hand-in-hand with trusted farmer advisors and agriculture retailers to make resources and opportunities available for farmers looking to make their operations more economically and environmentally sound.
- Supply Chain: We're leveraging market forces and increased interest in corporate social responsibility to drive change on agricultural lands and increase the sustainability of crop production. For example, we’ve launched the Ecosystem Services Market Consortium in Minnesota, a pilot program which will enable farmers to be compensated $20 per acre for implementing soil health practices.
- Non-Operator Landowners (NOLs): We're working to increase the implementation of best practices on rented land through engagement with non-operating landowners and farmland managers.
- Public Policy: We are seeking to influence farm policy and public spending through powerful communication, leveraging scientific information and examples of effective implementation. Learn more about how we work with policy and help us make sure sustainable agriculture is part of policy.
The Future Is in Our Farms
Shifting towards a regenerative model doesn’t just ensure our ability to keep up with increasing demand for food. Improving agricultural practices across the U.S. has the potential to reduce 389 million tons of carbon dioxide per year—the equivalent of taking almost 85 million vehicles off the road. Not only that, adoption of soil health practices on just half of our cropland could reduce nitrogen and phosphorus loading in the Mississippi River system by as much as 20%.
As we continue to work toward a world where both people and nature thrive, it must be in the understanding that farmers and ranchers are key pieces of that puzzle.
Andrea Eger brings 15 years of agriculture experience to her role as a regenerative agriculture project manager at The Nature Conservancy. She first fell in love with agriculture while working on diversified vegetable farms and has never looked back. Since her years on the farm, she has also worked as an agricultural education, program and project manager where she developed and strengthened partnerships, created resources for farmers to grow their businesses and advocated for adoption of regenerative practices. She is excited to join the TNC team to expand regenerative farming practices that build soil health, help combat climate change, create more resilient farms and protect water and wildlife.
Leif is The Nature Conservancy’s agriculture strategy manager in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. He’s also a former farm kid with lots of experience and perspectives on land management. Growing up on a family farm in Brookings, SD with a soil chemist as his dad, Leif has been learning about and practicing sustainable farming for as long as he can remember. Leif is well-versed in what it means to work with nature to build healthy and sustainable farms. He's pleased to bring that expertise to the work of TNC, with the goals of protecting water resources, unlocking the climate potential of agricultural lands and helping farmers improve their overall productivity in the process.
Peter Mead joined The Nature Conservancy in 2020 in a new role as the chapter’s agriculture project manager, where he works to steward, facilitate and leverage new and existing relationships with landowners, farmers, producer groups, conservation partners and the supply chain to implement programs and strategies that lead to increased adoption of sustainable practices, including soil health, nutrient management and enrollment in emerging ecosystem service markets. Peter has nearly two decades of experience in federal, state, local and private conservation delivery, a keen interest in regenerative agriculture and has long been an advocate for systemic, realistic changes in land management that foster healthy soils, improved water quality and resiliency across Minnesota’s agricultural sector.