Serving Minnesota and Northern Iowa.

Watershed sets a perennial goal through project

By Carol Stender
cstender@agrinews.com

Date Modified: 10/25/2010 3:46 PM

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STARBUCK, Minn. — The rolling pastures of Don and Helen Berheim's Starbuck-area farm was the perfect backdrop for the "Chippewa 10% Project" kick-off earlier this month.

The project plans to put conservation practices on an additional 10 percent of farmland in the Chippewa River Watershed. The land could be planted in perennials, more diverse cropping systems or for pasture use.

Chippewa River Watershed Project scientist Paul Wymer said the Chippewa River's clarity is dependent on land use within the watershed. Of the 1.3 million acres in the watershed, 74 percent is planted in row crops. Only 24 percent is planted in perennials. Increasing perennial, more diverse crop plantings or putting the land into pasture would reduce erosion.

Conservation programs can aid farmers transitioning land towards different cropping or perennial systems. While agencies like the Natural Resource Conservation Service and Soil and Water Conservation District can offer some cost share programs, the Chippewa River Watershed has, through grants, been able to help producers with a 75 percent cost share, said program director Kylene Olson.

For the Berheims, that transition to grass had already taken place. The previous owner had purchased several properties planting the land all in grass, said Don.

Both Don and Helen grew up on farms and, after serving churches throughout the area as a Lutheran pastor, Don and Helen settled on their farm. They are raising cattle and are supportive of the Chippewa 10% Project.

"This is a great beginning step," Don said. "We know that what's happening ultimately will not be sustainable. We know the annual cropping is difficult to sustain. We need to find ways to economically live with the land so that it can be productive but also so the land can be cared for."

The Berheims have around 200 acres in the watershed, a small portion compared to the total acreage of the watershed.

"Ten percent is a lot of land when you consider that the watershed has 1.3 million acres," he said. "What we immediately realized was that the traditional model we are using for crop production wouldn't suffice. We knew we needed to look at a private, profit-driven model to promote change."

Project organizers say the Chippewa 10% Project is one effort toward a cleaner Chippewa River.

There are additional benefits to the area as well, said Terry Vanderpol of the Land Stewardship Project's community food based systems program. The additional land uses can result in crops grown for the increased local foods demand.

"The bottom line is that farmers need to make a profit from what they do," she said. "That drives a lot of decisions, but there are beginning to be more and more alternatives. We look at how farmers can profit from perennials."

Vanderpol told a group of 50 program supporters and farmers she's visited several programs that are already putting the concept to practice. One was a 13,000 square foot warehouse where a consortium of 45 farmers brought their produce for distribution.

"We need to rebuild some of this infrastructure," she said.

Western Minnesota is no stranger to local foods initiatives. The University of Minnesota-Morris uses locally grown foods in its college food service. Many schools, hospitals and grocery stores are also making local foods connections.

The Chippewa River Watershed Project and the Land Stewardship Project are co-leaders of the project. They have partnered with the USDA ARS North Central Soil Conservation Research Lab, University of Minnesota-Morris, West Central Research and Outreach Center and Louisiana State University AgCenter. Others working with the project are the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Community leaders, farmers and business people are also involved with the project's development.

The Chippewa River Watershed serves a seven-county area including Douglas, Stevens, Grant, Pope, Chippewa, Swift and Kandiyohi counties.

For more information on the Chippewa 10% Project contact CRWP director Kylene Olson at (320) 269-2139, ext. 116; or Julia Ahlers Ness of the Land Stewardship Project at (320) 269-2105. Check out information on the website www.chippewa10.org.