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Viewpoint: Farmers making progress on new buffer requirement

John Jaschke is executive director of the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources. Dave Frederickson is commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. Tom Landwehr is commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Clean water matters to Minnesota. No matter where we live or what we do, Minnesotans want our families and future generations to enjoy water that's fishable, swimmable and drinkable. When Gov. Mark Dayton proposed new buffer legislation two years ago, he recognized that we are at a watershed moment in our state's history when it comes to protecting water quality. The governor also reiterated his call that protecting Minnesota's water quality requires each of us to participate in the process. The agriculture community has played a significant part in moving the state closer to our goal of improving the state's water quality.

As the three top state officials charged with implementing the buffer law, we want to thank you, Minnesota's farmers and landowners, who have accomplished much of what the governor envisioned and more.

Thanks to you, we have made incredible progress in a short amount of time. With eight months before the first buffer deadline for public waters, the Department of Natural Resources has released its final maps. These maps were finalized after reviewing more than 4,200 public comments and making 2,800 changes. Your collaboration in this process resulted in more accurate maps ready for use.

Most notably, 74 percent of Minnesota's counties are 60 to 100 percent in compliance with the buffer law. While this might surprise some, it doesn't surprise us, as we know Minnesota farmers and landowners are great stewards of our lands. In fact, many farmers and landowners already had buffers in place when the requirement became law. And others have responded to the governor's call asking them to be part of the solution to clean up our valuable water resources.

There's still work to be done, of course. Soil water and conservation district staff all over the state have been sending letters and hosting public meetings to offer support to landowners ahead of the Nov. 1, 2017, deadline for public waters to have buffers in place.

While the statutory goal of improving our state's water quality is firm, the law offers flexibility for landowners in finding site-specific solutions. If buffers aren't the best solution, landowners can use alternative practices that achieve the same water quality benefits. State agencies, and local soil and water conservation districts stand ready to partner with you in making a smooth transition to the new standards. SWCDs can help lay out flexible options for you to consider based on the needs of your farm and your land. Landowners around the state have already had success in working with their SWCDs to get these practices approved.

For example, landowners in Goodhue County have worked closely with SWCD staff on alternatives to buffers including managed grazing, installation of hayable buffers, native prairie plantings, and enrollment in the Conservation Reserve Program. As a result, an estimated 77 percent of the required buffers are already in place.

Another alternative practice to consider is enrolling in the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program. More than 360 farmers have already entered this voluntary program and are therefore in compliance with the buffer requirement. We're proud to report these farmers have implemented 619 new conservation practices on 211,000 acres of farmland. What does this mean in terms of water quality conservation? Currently, 12.1 million pounds of sediment has been kept out of our lakes, rivers and streams and 17.4 million pounds of soil has stayed put.

Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program certification is achieved one-on-one with farmers to implement practices and management customized to the site conditions, while fully meeting the science-based requirements to achieve water protection.

Northfield-area farmer Dave Legvold was the first to be MAWQCP certified in Dakota County. "I'm pleased the state is offering the certification program as an alternate to the buffer requirement because every farm is different," said Legvold. "I'm also pleased to see these early positive results."

We are committed to helping our agriculture community even more. From the new Minnesota Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program to the federal Conservation Reserve Program to local cost-share, there is financial assistance available to landowners who need it. Each of these voluntary programs are available to farmers across the state.

What's more, Dayton included $3.8 million in his tax bill in financial assistance for farmers for installing water quality buffers. This amounts to $40 per acre per year for each tillable acre converted to a buffer strip. Counties and watershed districts would also receive aid to assist in implementation. Information on alternative options and financial assistance can be found at www.bwsr.state.mn.us/buffers.

The success of this effort is greater than one individual, one agency or lawmaker. It relies on all of us taking individual action and by working together we can make a difference for future generations. Thank you farmers and landowners for the implementation so far, and the work yet to come. Our actions today will benefit our children and grandchildren who will inherit a cleaner, healthier Minnesota.

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