By Kerry Drager
It may not be a surprise to discover that the community’s water supply comes from local rivers and streams. What may be a surprise is what kinds of pollutants can be found in the very same watersheds that are used to supply tap water to entire cities of people. These water bodies pass through many acres of agricultural lands.
Chuck and Deb Uphoff of Melrose wanted to ensure that their farming operation was having a positive impact on the water quality of the Middle Sauk Watershed.
Uphoff has a deep love for nature, and on his 500-acre farm, that has belonged to the family for over a century, he has a lot of wildlife to enjoy.
Since he began operating the dairy farm in 1981, he has taken steps to ensure that it was productive while the land was kept healthy.
As a serving member of the Stearns County Soil Water Conservation District (SWCD) Board, Uphoff has been active in finding ways to make his farm more environmentally functional over the past three decades.
Conservation began with nearly 3,500 trees that were planted on 12 acres of land dedicated to the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) in the early 1990s. Farming practices were also changed when Uphoff switched to using a chisel plow on his fields and modified his feedlot and manure storage practices.
By cementing his feedlot and constructing a manure storage structure to protect the Sauk River from run-off pollutants, Uphoff was also preserving the nutrients that the manure offered. With a liquid and solid manure system, there is valuable fertilizer for his crops year round.
Although conservation is undoubtedly good for the environment and for those communities that depend on the health of the region’s soil and water, farmers need to be making a profit for efforts to work. Many programs like CRP and the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) are designed to help both the producer and the land.
“Conservation and profitability go hand in hand,” said Uphoff. “It has definitely worked well for us. We’ve used every conservation effort you can think of. Producers have to be able to use conservation and still see a profit.
“Agriculture producers are not stupid; they are wise and are getting wiser. Most of them are college educated people now. They know what it takes to make a buck. These programs have to be geared so that these farmers can do both.”
Conservation efforts that work for the agricultural business is a trial and error process. Uphoff has had his own mistakes. In the early 2000s, he planted yellow flowering alfalfa with the promise that it would be good for both the pheasants and the pocketbook. For three years, Uphoff attempted to turn a profit with the alfalfa, but it was simply not a successful crop for Minnesota climates.
Opportunities for improvements seem to arise out of the ashes of the failed ones. While Uphoff was discussing the alfalfa with some people from the Stearns County (SWCD) and the Department of Natural Resources, it was suggested that the lowland meadow in his fields would make for a wonderful wetland environment.
“I talked to Deb about it and she thought it would be cool to have a nice, big wetland on the farm. I am on the Water Management Committee here in Stearns County, so I proceeded to ask for available funds so I could develop. We have created 12 acres of wetland. I’ve got so much wildlife now. Many ducks and birds, some of which I’ve never seen before, have inhabited our wetland.”
Uphoff became certified with the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program (MAWQCP) this summer. To become certified his farm needed to score at least 85 percent on several assessments including nutrient, tillage, pest, irrigation and drainage management.
The MAWQCP is a pilot program meant to gather feedback from local farmers and conservation professionals before the program becomes available throughout the state. Uphoff now has one of the pilot farms and is pleased to have the ability to provide some input on agriculture and conservation activities.
The certification along with his Minnesota Agriculture and Rural Leadership (MARL) training will help give him a voice in the legislative community.
Uphoff understands that consumers want the best product available. Caring for the soil by planting cover crops and taking care of a watershed that belongs to the Mississippi basin creates a healthier, happier planet.
Conservation is important to the future of agriculture, and that’s something the whole world can drink to.