Farmers care about water quality: New drainage educator will serve producers and public with info and know-how

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

It was his expertise in conservation tillage that got extension educator Brad Carlson involved in water issues on the farm. Carlson has been an extension educator for 17 years, the last eight working locally in south-central Minnesota with research and education in tillage systems and farm drainage. Starting June 1, water quality and farm drainage are Carlson’s full-time job at the University of Minnesota Extension Service.

“Managing the water table is what allows tillage systems to be effective and productive here in Minnesota–conservation tillage wouldn’t be possible here without effective drain tiles systems,” said Dave Pfarr, a farmer in Sibley County and a grower leader for Minnesota Corn Growers Association. “Every farmer is very conscious of our role as stewards of the land. It’s a dollars-and-cents issue–we can’t afford to spend $600 to $700 dollars to plant an acre of corn and have a lackluster response. Farmers want information about what works–what will work on their individual farm. We can’t afford a one-size-fits-all approach based on unproved ideas. But water is also a quality of life issue for farmers. No one cares more about keeping the land and water healthy. That’s our livelihood and the future livelihood of our children. That’s why we’re so excited to have Brad Carlson come on board as a full-time drainage and water quality specialist.”

Carlson will make use of the huge volume of data and research from projects conducted here and elsewhere. With all this mass of data coming in, findings need to be interpreted and applied. Carlson’s focus will also allow him to suggest future directions for research. The Minnesota Corn Research & Promotion Council provided half the funds for Carlson’s position and grower leaders regard the decision to underwrite this effort as a wise investment, to ensure the Council’s ongoing efforts to increase knowledge about how farm drainage can be utilized as effectively as possible by corn producers.

Pfarr noted that Carlson begins the position with “a blank slate” and MCGA/MCR&PC welcomes the input of farmers who have ideas about effective ways to deliver information to farmers and the public. Pfarr, who serves as an area agronomist for Pioneer, has a lot of experience with helping producers sort through information and implement management practices that maximize yield in the face of weather, soil and water conditions. He believes Carlson will do everything from one-on-one technical assistance to group meetings and panel discussions, as well as media releases and publications, in order to communicate the latest information about drainage research.

“It has become very clear that issues related to water quality are of great concern to the public and they are of great concern for producers as well,” said Carlson. “There are conflicting messages in the media about farming’s impact on water quality, and there are even conflicting findings in the science that’s being done–this can cause confusion and has led to politicization of the issue. Part of my role is sorting out the information, and helping to set aside the politics, in favor of information and practices that achieve the water quality goals everyone has in mind.”

Carlson notes that many farmers already follow best management practices–the trend has led to fewer inputs per bushel of corn. Carlson is here “to help every farmer put the best foot forward” on drainage practices.

The public’s concerns about flooding and hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico deserve attention and Carlson will relay information about these issues to the public, but he will sort out real science from rhetoric.

“Some people have proposed simplistic solutions that would have an adverse impact on farmers and wouldn’t produce the desired results for water quality,” said Carlson. “It’s important for people to know that these problems are not that simple. We want to help everyone move forward together, instead of just throwing rocks at each other.”

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