Podcast Episode 16

Modern Water Management Requires Modern Data

Modern Water Management Requires Modern Data

With Guest:
  • Warren Formo of MN Ag Water Resource Center

Warren Formo, Executive Director at MN Ag Water Resource Center, discusses the urgent need for modern data in order to create modern water management practices for our changing industry and world. He shares examples from Discovery Farms Minnesota, a farmer-led effort to gather water quality information under real-world conditions.

Episode 16 | 46:54 min
There's a lot of frustration amongst farmers with the use of model data or research from 50 and 60 years ago to describe what's happening (now) in terms of runoff from farms."
— Warren Formo

Guest Bio

Warren Formo grew up on a farm in Chippewa County. In the 90’s, Formo got involved in Ag Advocacy. Through his experience, Formo began to take note of all the growing pressures and trends towards bigger discussions and misinformation and felt a need to help people better understand what was really going on in agriculture related to water quality and other conservation efforts. In 2008, Minnesota Ag Water Resource Center was being created and it felt like the perfect opportunity for Formo to focus on the growing issue. Formo joined the team and is now serves in the Executive Director role. The Minnesota Agriculture Water Resources Center (MAWRC) is a research and education organization comprised of the primary farm organizations in Minnesota, working together to identify and address water issues.

Jamie: 

This is the water table.

Kent: 

A chance to hear the agricultural side of these issues

Jamie: 

A place for people to go find information and education.

Matt Helmers: 

Water Management is just going to become even more critical into the future.

Jamie: 

How misunderstood what we do is.

Kent: 

I would encourage people to open their minds to listen to this dialogue.

Jamie: 

Welcome to the Water Table podcast! Today I have Kent Roedelius back with me again Kent’s kind of a mainstay guest, here. And also Kent and I are going to be interviewing Warren Formo. Warren is the Executive Director of the Minnesota Ag Water Resource Center. And the Ag Water Resource Center here in Minnesota is primarily a farm organizations have sponsored the Resource Center’s mission to identify and address water conservation concerns. The leadership and participation of Minnesota producer associations truly reflect Minnesota agriculture’s commitment to protecting the State Water Resources. Gives you a little bit of an idea, but Warren, tell Kent and I a little bit about who we are, how you got to where we are, and a little bit more about the Minnesota Ag Water Resource Center.

Warren Formo: 

Sure, glad to do that. So I started this whole journey actually grew up growing up on a farm in not too far west of you and Chippewa County. Had been a lifelong Ag advocate have had the opportunity to spend some years on the farm with my dad and brother and dad’s gone now and now my brother runs the farm out there in the Maynard area. And I got involved in ag advocacy way back in the 90s. And kind of started out covering basically all of the lobbying efforts and whatever was going on in agriculture. And then about 15 years ago, realized that partly myself and partly just the people that I was working with in agriculture around me, we noticed all these growing pressures and trends towards bigger discussions and what seemed like more myths and misinformation and perhaps then more opportunity to help people better understand what’s really going on in agriculture relative to water quality and other conservation efforts. And so I started about 15 years ago, really focusing on water. And then I in 2007, and eight as the Minnesota ag Water Resource Center was being created, it just seemed like a good opportunity to really focus on this growing issue. And so that’s kind of how I got here. My background and education was in Ag economics and Ag education, not the sciences around water. But over the last 15 years or so, I’ve really been immersed in enough discussions with the technical folks both State agencies, Federal agencies. A lot of folks doing water quality research and including some that we now, do here at the MAWRC. And I really have the great opportunity to be part of the Ag team and become sort of a reference or a resource for them and also for those outside of agriculture who want to know more about what farmers are doing.

Kent: 

Well, that’s certainly a good recap of where you’ve been and what you’re up to now Warren and absolutely interested to find more out about the Minnesota Ag Water Resource Center. It’s a pretty big umbrella that you spread there in that introduction that Jamie read. What are the main focuses of what you do, Warren? What would you say would be a normal day or a new normal of resource that you would chase?

Warren Formo: 

Yeah, so we are here to help our member groups. And our member groups are 24 Ag organizations and so we have really a footprint that covers the entire state, and across all commodities, all crops, all livestock type systems in Minnesota. And so you know, it ranges. We work, you know, on feedlot permits, trying to help livestock groups address those concerns. We work on drainage issues, irrigation issues, wetland conservation, as well as just the basics of nutrient management, and how can we help farmers be more efficient, lighten their imprint or their footprint on the environment. And so that’s one of the great things about it is agriculture is pretty diverse and immense across our State. And so day to day, we get to be involved in a lot of things. You know, a lot of types of discussions around nutrient management and other concerns that non-farmers might have about how farming is impacting the environment. And so we are able then to get involved in all of those issues and then knowing early on that we needed factual data, real information, we’ve also engaged with farmers to collect actual water monitoring data on their own farms. And we use that then as part of the, you know, our curriculum what we put out there for farmers to learn and use and reflect on how it might line up with their own farms.

Jamie: 

So, Warren, where does your your funding come from for your group?

Warren Formo: 

Yeah, so our primary funding comes from the Minnesota Corn Check-off program. And they’ve been, they were one of the groups that helped found us years ago and continue to be one of our primary funders. We also get small amounts of funds from all of our other members. And in addition, because we are doing water quality and conservation, environmental related research, we get a little bit of assistance from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture through the Clean Water fund. And then we apply for grants, most often through USDA NRCS, as they’re also a partner in a lot of the work that we do.

Jamie: 

Yeah, good. Good. I was not aware of that and, you know, it seems like there’s a lot of money available in Minnesota for water, water programs and just curious where your organization’s funding came from. What about like size of your organization and amount of employees, that kind of thing?

Warren Formo: 

Yeah, so we’re small, we basically lean on our member groups, if we need, you know, administrative type work. As a resource center, we don’t have to create a lot of those opportunities for sharing information ourselves, we’re a sort of a plug and play operation that can fit into their activities. And so we’re really a lean and mean operation, we’ve got two people full time, myself and I sort of, you know, do most of the administrative work and spearhead a lot of the work that we do, engaging with State and Federal agencies on issues. And then we also have a full time technical person. And he’s our Discovery Farms Program Coordinator and his background is more in the environmental sciences. He understands water modeling, and those sorts of things. And so between us, we’re able to, you know, collect the data, kind of figure out what it means working with our farmer groups, and hopefully help farmers in their quest to continually improve.

Kent: 

Warren over the years I’ve seen you at a number of conferences or Ag shows that we’ve both work together. Often I see you with the corn growers or the pork producers or their irrigation groups, are those some of the larger groups you work with or represent?

Warren Formo: 

They are. And so all told, we have 24 member groups. So it ranges all the way from, you know, Minnesota Farm Bureau, which is the largest membership group that that is part of our group all the way down to you know, you mentioned the irrigators, there aren’t that many farmers in Minnesota who irrigate so you’re talking about maybe 12 or 1400 members in that group. And so when we look across our membership list, and who they have the ability to reach, remember, there are only about 60,000 farmers in Minnesota, and between the farmers we can reach and the agronomy professionals and other resources they rely on. We figure that we’ve got a network of well over 50,000.

Jamie: 

That’s impressive. I was I was not expecting that number. Let’s let’s talk a little bit, you had mentioned, your technical staff member works closely with Discovery Farms. Let’s kind of move into Discovery Farms. Tell us what that entails and maybe even describe, we’ve talked a little bit about Discovery Farms in a past episode. But why don’t you describe what that is?

Warren Formo: 

Yeah so the Discovery Farms program actually started about 20 years ago in Wisconsin. And really what was going on was farmers over there, recognize that a lot of regulations were coming and the best way to help fend off those regulations, or at least make sure they were done in a more reasonable way was to have actual on-farm data. There’s a lot of frustration amongst farmers with the use of model data or research from 50 and 60 years ago to to describe what’s I think it’s really interesting, Warren, you said, you know, most happening in terms of runoff from farms. And so when we started our organization, one of the very first things we realized was we needed to also have factual data on Minnesota farms. And so we partnered with Wisconsin, we work very closely with them to collect our data the same way they do. We do some of our research projects together and write up our publications together. So that if if you’re a farmer in Minnesota, and you see Discovery, a Wisconsin Discovery Farm report, it’ll look very similar to ours because we’re collecting the same data and graphing it and presenting it in a very similar way. And we began that journey here in Minnesota then in 2009. And so now we’ve got more than a decade of data collected on more than 50 farms across the state. And it allows us then to work with farmers in different kinds of systems and characterize, you know, what are the things they should be concerned about? If you get your science from the Star Tribune, you’d think that every farmer has every problem. And what we’ve learned is that it’s very clear that most farms are doing most things very well. But most farms also maybe have that one thing or two things that they could be working on. And so, you know, in some farm systems, it involves manure management, and others, it might be how they manage irrigation water. In others, it might be the basics of nitrogen or fertilizer management. Some it’s erosion control, but no farm has all of those things. And so part of what we try to do is help farmers identify, what should be working on? And then how do go about fixing of the research on farming is from 50-60 years ago that people are familiar with, and that’s the last generation that didn’t farm. So now it’s, that’s the reality in the big city, as to what really. It really is. And one of the challenges is that many of the models that are used to describe what’s happening at a watershed scale on farms, the number they get to might be close to correct and the problem with that is it often leads agencies and others who want to find environmental solutions to think there might be one answer. And so we like to look at many different types of farming systems. And even within a relatively small geography, we’ll see very wide ranging numbers. And so, you know, let’s just say that the average nitrogen loss from farms is 20 pounds, but it might range from two or three to 75 to 80. And so the average number that PCA or other regulators would assign to the farmers in that area might be correct. But what to do about it isn’t that question isn’t answered, because they they didn’t understand until we started collecting this data on many farms, how much variability there is, and so we can start to then show them that some farms actually have very, very low nutrient losses, others have higher, and then where we can identify practice relationships to those numbers, and we can help all farmers improve,

Kent: 

How does a farmer get to have a Discovery Farm? What’s the qualifications? Or how does that come about?

Warren Formo: 

Sure, so yeah. So periodically, we will do a request for applications. And so we have a couple of different levels of participation, the very highly instrumented, you know, fully automated monitoring sites are really expensive to operate, you know, when we go onto a farm with the high technology monitoring system, and we tend to stay at those sites for 6-8 years, that’s a $200,000 plus investment. And so we don’t do very many of those, we try to have in the range of seven to 10 of those at any given time. And then we also have a way for other farmers to participate in sort of a less rigorous data collection where we, you know, wouldn’t collect all the data, but we would perhaps go out every other week and grab tile samples. It’s especially helpful with tile drain systems. And so we’ve learned that through a tiled drained monitoring program, where we just go out and grab a sample every couple of weeks, we’ve done the analysis through an NRCS grant funded program, where we were able to collect a whole bunch of tile drain samples and evaluate them for nitrate, which is the really the primary thing we’re looking at in terms of tile impacts. And found that these bi-weekly samples were a pretty good way to evaluate the concentration nitrates and tile water. And so now we can engage many farmers by doing the regular sampling without trying to fully instrument and it’s much, much more cost effective. And so when we have opportunities for farmers to participate in either of those programs, we’ll make it known through our member groups, the corn growers, Farm Bureau and others, and then they will send that information out to their farmer members. And then we we typically get, you know, 10 to 15 times more applications than we have room for.

Jamie: 

So is there is there ways for the general public to gain information on the Minnesota Ag Water Resource Center or a Discovery Farm, how does the public attach to that?

Warren Formo: 

All of the information that we’ve collected once it’s published is available on our website. And so if you go to either our general issues website is mawrc.org, just our acroymn dot org. And at it, you will find information on some of the kind of the issues management that we do. And then we’ll also find a link to our specific Discovery Farms Minnesota page, or you can just go directly to that page. And at Discovery Farmes Minnesota, you’ll find information on the farms that have participated in the program, what sort of data we collected, and where a project is completed a summary of what we learned at that place. And now, especially in the pandemic era, with COVID, we’ve begun to make more of that information in video format. And so they can also go to our Facebook page and view videos basically where we’ve done presentations on the data we’ve collected.

Kent: 

Do you hold any open houses or events of any? Field days or anything at any Discovery Farms, Warren?

Warren Formo: 

We do. And that’s the other way we get information out is and we’re we didn’t do any last year because it COVID but this year, we’re planning to do some field days again. One of the very important pieces of discovery farms is because we’re doing this monitoring on farms, they become sort of outdoor classrooms where we can just naturally hold a field day and we can talk about several things. We can talk about the basic conservation practices that that farmer is doing, we can talk about data that we’ve actually collected at the edge of the field where they’re doing it. And then we can also talk to neighboring farms, other folks who have an interest in what we’re learning, and have sort of a, you know, open conversation about what what sort of innovative things might farmers be moving on to next. I think one of the really eye opening things for people from outside of agriculture is when we can get them out on farms and let them see the technology and all the things that are going on. You know, there’s still folks that that may farm like they did in the 60s and 70s, but not very many. But a lot of people outside of agriculture think that’s kind of who we are. And and really a lot of the advancements we’re making our because of new technology.

Jamie: 

Yeah, that’s so interesting. As you know, for Kent and I that’s easy to believe, because we know that. But you know, we also happen to know that that the technology that’s coming in agriculture over the next five to 10 years, is you know lightyears ahead of where we’re at today. And so pretty amazing that, you know, most of the general public will be surprised at where we are technology wise, knowing where we’re going over the next few years is, is exciting. It’s exciting and daunting. But how about I’ve heard about this agricultural Watershed Council, tell us what that is, and how that functions.

Warren Formo: 

Ag watershed councils became sort of a buzzword maybe 8 to 10 years ago. And it really came out of efforts by non Ag folks to get farmers to, this was their words, they wanted to get farmers to start talking about water issues in their area and get them engaged in a conversation. We in agriculture, we knew farmers were already taking water issues seriously, and especially at their local level. And so we began creating some farmer watershed councils sort of parallel to what some of the agencies were doing. We did it a little differently, because we, you know, we work with farmers differently, where we have no ability to tell anybody what to do. We can’t direct farmers, and we would never want to, we simply invite farmers to come into a discussion. And what we found early on was that most of these groups really don’t want to be called something as official as an Ag Watershed Council. But they are, we call them that internally and what we do, because when you get a group of 30 farmers together who all farm in a in a given watershed, it’s that’s a pretty powerful set of folks who understand the local issues and really take very seriously, you know, if there are genuine issues that they need to address, and you know, in the old days, we might have just talked about peer pressure. But these these local groups, these local networks of farmers, we understand that they’re an important way to get this information from farmer to farmer. And so we then began to establish some of these watershed councils. Very similar to what some of the agencies have described or how some of the agencies have described them. But we just do In a little bit, maybe low-key way is the way to describe it. But I think that in terms of outreach, and looking at the number of farmers who come to the events that we put on where we invite them. You know, I remember the day where we were even shy about sending out a postcard saying, come to a meeting and talk about water, because most farmers would schedule a dentist appointment that day, instead. What we found is that, as we’ve developed, you know, a reputation of background that we’re sharing this sort of important and useful information with them without a conclusion of this is what you must do. Farmers find that much more inviting.

Kent: 

That’s interesting, Warren, that’s a kind of a unique approach to that subject. And one of the things that we’re currently facing is a new administration. And every time you pick up an Ag magazine, or read it, even a newspaper, almost anything, they talk about the issues that are facing the farm and water quality, and soil health, a whole myriad of things that there sound prepared to throw money out. And it’s a really big, large subject and tough to tough to break down. But all these programs, I think, mislead people, like you said earlier that every farm has every problem, but what would be some of your thoughts on that one?

Warren Formo: 

Well, I think, again, it’s really important to help farmers sort through, it’s very important to help policy-makers understand that when they create these programs and sometimes the rules and criteria wind up being such that the farmers who really needed access to those conservation programs can’t. And so, you know, that’s why I think in our State, especially, we put so much of our resources into better understanding tile drain systems. Because across Minnesota, you think about the risk management related to water. We do irrigate a little bit about 4% of Minnesota’s cropland is irrigated. But more than half of it is tile drained. And by some estimates, as much as three fourths of it would benefit from tile drainage or improved tile drainage. Remember, the lot of these systems went in 50 to 80 years ago, and they’re getting old. And so we spend a lot of time in the within the water quality arena looking at things like tile design, the process for modernizing tile systems, and the more information we collect I think the better store we have about tile drainage and drainage in general been an actual conservation practice.

Jamie: 

Interesting that we get often asked about figures and how much of farm ground is drained. And you know, your figure there have half of Minnesota farm ground has drainage. Really just to clarify for our listeners that are that are more city cousins. What that means is that half of the farmland has some drainage in it, it doesn’t mean that it’s it’s intensely drained or that it’s, but that has been manipulated at one time or another for some drainage.

Warren Formo: 

Yeah, it we’ve got a very diverse network out there, we’ve got parts of the state where a lot of drainage was happening 100 years ago, and it was, you know, much more rudimentary than than it is today. And then we’ve got other areas where drainage is especially subsurface or tile drainage is a much newer phenomenon. And but within all that, I also want to make sure to say we still have some of the strongest wetland protections in the Country. And so I think one of the myths we often work around or work through is that farmers are draining wetlands. The reality is we’re actually creating wetlands more often on farmland and at a net basis when we have more wetlands created than then would be lost in any given year. And so the regulations are very strong in Minnesota to protect wetlands, the drainage that we see isn’t of wetlands, it’s of soils that are occasionally too wet for good agronomics to happen and, and you know, Kent mentioned soil health, you can’t have so good soil health, on in soils that are often inundated or saturated with water, you’ve got to get oxygen into those soils. And so, we there are a number of factors that the tile drainage specifically brings that, you know, we understand and we are trying to help others understand things like, you know, reduce surface runoff and so less erosion and those sorts of factors. The sponge effect, we’ve got data that very clearly shows that the sponge effect is real that yes, you lose wetland storage when you drained an area 80-100 years ago, but there’s also the benefit of having then soils that are drained that can hold on to the next train. And so the the sponge the metering effect, the releasing water more slowly then when it’s allowed to all move through surface runoff. Those factors are very real. And they all tie back to agronomic and basically food production activities.

Jamie: 

Sure, good, good, good dialogue there. You know, switching gears a little bit, but over the last five or so years, you know, one of the buzzwords in agriculture has been around cover crops and what we’re doing on cover crops. It’s really, even in the last 12 months really picked up steam, I think, for more of the general public to see and understand what’s happening with cover crops being planted on farms. And so what’s your what’s your take on cover crops and how that may or may not be helpful to water?

Warren Formo: 

Yeah, I think cover crops have a lot of potential. We see in a lot of the plots, a lot of the work we’ve done in Discovery Farms that there is. I think there’s room for cover crops to make a difference. I think back, you know, only maybe 8-10 years ago, when this whole discussion about cover crops really started to take off. And there was a lot of anxiety amongst farmers. And you know, am I going to be forced to do this? Am I going to have choices in how I do it? What’s interesting to me is that now, just a few years later, we’re seeing more than 600,000 acres of cover crops planted each year in Minnesota. More than doubled, where we were 8-10 years ago. And while there are we still have a lot to learn about how to grow cover crops successfully across especially our full season, you know, corn soybean systems. But in small grain systems, vegetable crops that are harvested early silage that’s harvested early, we’re seeing a lot of innovation, a lot of farmers planting cover crops, and figuring out how to how to position them to be successful. We’ve got a lot of examples of cover crops are planted and never grew. And so we need to learn that too. But if we look at the last three years of our Discovery Farms data, looking specifically at nitrates in tiled drain fields, we see the potential to reduce nitrates in those tile lines, depending on your nitrogen rate overall, by as much as 75%. Now that’s kind of the top end, we also see situations where it only reduces it by 10-20%. But that’s important too. And so we hope to look over the next several years at figuring out why such a range in success or such a range in how much nitrate is removed by these cover crops. And we also need to learn is that going to happen every year? Or will we reach a point where with better, you know, with better soil health, that that means more nutrient cycling, including nitrogen. And so some have speculated that down the road we may reach sort of an equilibrium again, where we’re back to the same old numbers unless we can fine tune our nutrient management systems at the same time. So I you know, cover crops, great potential. Many farmers are learning to do them well, but we need more.

Kent: 

It’s interesting to talk about all the different practices. The EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency, not too long ago, set a nutrient reduction strategy for each state. Minnesota is to reduce nitrates by 45% by 2025. That takes a lot of practices, that takes a lot of innovation to take. It takes a whole group of practices like you’ve been alluding to, and it’s way more complicated than people think it is.

Warren Formo: 

It really does. And you know, we’ve we’ve looked very closely at the neutral reduction strategy for Minnesota. And you know, there there’s some good things in it, it talks about improving nutrient management and precision Ag and technology and those sorts of things as part of the program. But then it also talks about taking a lot of land out of production or switching to perennial crops that today we really don’t know much about, not only not we don’t know how to grow them, but we don’t know what market they would would fill soldiers and economic uncertainty for farmers. But, you know, if we looking at what the nutrient reduction strategy is calling for, you know, in the basic objectives and principles, as you alluded to, they come out of the Gulf hypoxia action plan built around hypoxia. And if, as we make progress, I would hope that the federal agencies would take sort of a, you know, constant checking in process, sort of adaptive management looking at, you know, as farmers and cities and others haven’t incorporated certain practices that reduce nutrient loading to the golf. You know, maybe we don’t need to get all the way to 45%, maybe we’ll see the right kind of conditions in the golf before we get to that point. But so I think it’s a very long range, aspirational goal. And we’re all committed to working towards it again, you know, while farmers might bristle a little bit, when told that we need to try to reduce losses. To that extent, I like to remind them that we’ve done quite a bit in the last 20 to 30 years and nutrient efficiencies are improving. And we see in the data that farmers are doing a lot of making really, you know, steady progress towards that goal. Well, we get all the way in that timeframe. That’s hard to say, but but I’m, at least we can go to the table and talk about all the things farmers are doing to try to make a contribution.

Kent: 

Jamie and I talked quite a bit and have on this program several times, about how, how hard it is for ag to tell its story accurately. And it seems to me like there’s almost two stories, there’s the story that there’s all the loss of wetlands and there’s the story of now where we’ve gotten these pretty sophisticated systems where we can start to manage nutrients. But I think a lot of the sports groups want to keep the focus on wetlands, because they think we’re draining wetlands. And you, you talked about how there is a net gain of wetlands in Minnesota. And that’s absolutely true. But we still we can’t seem to get that message out. I don’t know why that is. I’ve heard that it’s because they’re not permanent wetlands. But there’s there are there is a significant gain of wetlands. And we need to move the argument away, because since 1985, you cannot drain a wetland in Minnesota. And if you don’t if, if you’re in the federal program, you can’t do it. And then Minnesota has the old the wetland Conservation Act, that Trumps that is an even more serious, so it’s just always interesting to kind of try and deal with that conundrum.

Warren Formo: 

Yeah, we run into a lot of negatives, whenever we talk about tile drainage, especially and there are those, even those working within state and federal agencies who, you know, often have a role in overseeing the approval of these projects. And they have deep seated, in my opinion, very deep seated negative ideas about tile drainage. And there are trade offs, we recognize that Yep, it moves water, it can move nitrates and, and so we need to acknowledge that. But you know that there are also a lot of positives. And, you know, we hear a lot of talk today about retaining water on the landscape, slowing it down, reducing flooding downstream. And one of the interesting things to come out of our discovery farms data is that, on average, across the farms that we’ve monitored, you get a little bit more water per year off a tile drain field, let’s say somewhere in the four inch range. Coming through a tile system, we get generally around three inches coming off surface runoff, but the intensity of the surface runoff is 10 times higher than tile water. Tile is a trickle. And so we’ll see average flows 10 times higher in the surface runoff, which means surface runoff, we typically only have about 10 days of it on a farm that we’re monitoring. Whereas we’ll have more than 100 days at very low flows of this trickle of water. And that’s part of this whole metering keeping water on the landscape. It also reduces flooding downstream. And we know we can do more to mitigate downstream effects. Remember a lot of our systems for our current systems, the ditches and tiles were put in many, many years ago, we didn’t have the technology, we didn’t have the water quality pressures and knowledge that we have today. And we can re-engineer those. It’s happening all across Minnesota, we can re engineer those systems to be much more environmentally benign than they originally were created. And and it’s just it’s frustrating that this notion of the sometimes come up comes out of regulators that we shouldn’t allow farmers to do these innovations because somehow there will be an unintended negative effect are rooted in these biases that we clearly know. If these agencies would work with us. We can help farmers and landowners work to install more of the modern technology into these drainage systems, and it would actually be hugely beneficial in my view.

Jamie: 

Yeah, there’s, there’s, it’s just really exciting talking to you and all the all the different pieces that go into something. And there’s just so much good that goes on, I think it comes all the way back to your comment about, you know, if you get people that don’t have a direct connection to the farm on the farm, they see everything that’s going on. And it’s it’s so hard to see, as you drive by it 60 miles an hour, that farm looks the same as it did 40-50 years ago, but there is so much new technology going on. And so, you know, that’s, that’s what I think we’re about is trying to trying to get some of that information out there. So that the general public and our educator, our customer base, so they can bring it to the general public or when they’re being asked about it. So, you know, kind of winding up here, but that what I just said, kind of bringing me into what do you see as the top priorities for Agriculture and Water? And what you do?

Warren Formo: 

Yeah, well, I guess I would lead right with what you were just describing, we’ve got great stories. And it’s plural, because across all of agriculture, there are so many different types of farmers and different farming systems. And there are, there are common themes. But those conservation stories are very different. And so I think one of the things that we’re focused on doing over the next years, is helping create a place a forum, much like what you’ve done here, where we can interview and work with farmers and go out and capture video on their farms of conservation in action. And increasingly, people want to find information on the web. And what we’re finding is that, you know, if we don’t put factual, useful, helpful information out there, there’s other information that people can find that often leads to, you know, to mischief. And so helping farmers tell that story, I think is going to become even more important in the future.

Kent: 

Well we certainly appreciate this discussion. Today, Warren, we could go on and on and talk about water and how it moves and the I always like to say that we have the luxury of too much water in Minnesota. So it’s a unique problem. But one, we certainly have great solutions and great interest in continuing to, to move the needle on water quality. So it’s been great to have you here today.

Warren Formo: 

Well, thank you appreciate it. And yeah, you’re right, we could talk another podcast or two about some of the related information, you even just specific to some of the tile drainage activities that we’re looking at. There’s a lot of information there. And but what’s encouraging to me is, this is all coming from participating interested conservation minded farmers whose their focus is to feed people. I mean, that’s job one for farmers. But I think too many people, it would be nice if they would understand that while they’re doing that important work, farmers are really investing a lot of time and of their own resources, in better conservation.

Jamie: 

For sure. It’s their land, they could produce, you know, as much as they can fence row to fence row. And a lot of times they’re, they’re not doing they’re they’re trying new practices every year that they don’t know what the beginning of the year is, is going to be beneficial to me or not. Because they’re really trying to make it beneficial to them, but also to the environment.

Kent: 

Say Warren, before you go. Tell us about the study where you studied how much more efficient plastic tile is than concrete or clay.

Warren Formo: 

Oh, yeah, yes, so I didn’t even go into a couple of those pieces. So we did not set out in discovery farms to find this because we really didn’t know whether it was an issue or not. But after we had collected data on tile drain farms for several years, probably six years, we noticed that there was very often tile drain systems, there was no sediment, virtually zero phosphorus, but nitrate that was kind of common across systems. And then we found a few tile systems that had not the same level of sediment, phosphorus you get in surface runoff, but certainly much higher than the others. And so we looked at this data across about 20 Farms in Minnesota and Wisconsin. And we just started lining them up from the farm with the very least sediment phosphorus to the one with the most. And there was a line right in the middle where you know, everything to the right of that graph was incredibly low numbers barely moved off the zero. And everything to the left, the numbers gradually got bigger. And what we found out we went back then and asked those farmers more information about those tile systems. Everything with the low numbers was plastic title and the numbers that got big, they weren’t all the same, there was a range, the very worst of them were old clay tile systems where the farmer said, oh, yeah, I have to go out there every year and fill in a sinkhole, and fix a sucked out broken tile. And what we found was that all the plastic systems were doing really well, the older systems not so much. And so out of it, we put together a fact sheet to talk about the importance of tile management, you know, if you have a problem with the system, get it fixed, take care of open intakes and that sort of thing, so that there’s not excess dirt flowing in. But really, the most important piece of that was pointing out that tile, again, the invention of tile was a major conservation innovation. And, as you guys know, in the industry, quite often were criticized for putting more plastic tile in the ground. And yet the data shows that even if all you’re doing is replacing an old concrete or clay system, there’s a benefit.

Jamie: 

Yeah, we’re taking plastic and taking it out of the landfill making plastic pipe out of it, which is going in the ground to feed the world. And it’s also a better product than that of its predecessors in clay and concrete pipe. So glad you shared that story. As it’s a good one, it’s a good one.

Warren Formo: 

Yeah, and we put that out as a fact sheet, I could actually get you a copy of that. But, you know, we were trying to head off some of the criticisms of tile and that was part of it. The other you know, there are some who want to make phosphorus in tile an issue and what basically our our data will show that unless you get above 50 parts per million, the amount of phosphorus in a tiled rain system are incredibly low, not really worth, you know, worrying about In fact, if you were to say, okay, as untitled, this farm had x, phosphorus loss. Now as a tiled rain farm, we’ve probably eliminated by 90 or reduced it by 90%. So there’s not really a story there. And in Minnesota, if we use that 50 parts per million breakpoint. The other surprising fact is that in Minnesota, 85% of our cropland is below 50 parts per million for phosphorus. So there isn’t a big risk factor there in our perspective.

Kent: 

Send that one went over to me.

Warren Formo: 

Yeah, I’ll do that.

Jamie: 

Put that on our water table website. So yeah.

Warren Formo: 

Yep. And one other real quick piece of data I wanted to share with you. And you guys know this already, too. But, you know, back in 2012, when crop prices were higher, and revenues, value per acre was higher. And you’ll remember 2012 was the year where we had our last major drought. And not only was it a drought across the ice states, which are really important to, you know, US crops, it was a big drought in some other growing regions of the world as well. So we saw this great increase in value per acre. And in Minnesota, the drought didn’t hit us until later. And so actually, Minnesota farmers had better yields that year, then further south. And we’ve looked at some of the data from 2012, and we can actually show that tile drained fields, and again, think of the old myth, too much drainage, we’re gonna make droughts worse. Well drain fields in 2012, out yielded poorly drained fields in 2012, because they got planted three weeks earlier, and their crop was made before the drought hit. And at the end of 2012, we had farmers across southern Minnesota, thinking about applying for irrigation permits, so they could add one squirt to water in August to get that corn crop to finish. Our data suggested that if their field wasn’t adequately titled drained, they’d be better off to get that fixed first and then they may find they don’t need as much of that August water because they’ve got a healthier early established crop.

Jamie: 

Yeah, good dats and if you remember back, you know, 2011 and the beginning of ’12 are super wet here. So those those fields that were able to get, they were able to get into early and plant, you know, that crop could continue to germinate and grow right away. And that was the difference. And we you know, we may see some of that again this year, although this year we weren’t planting in wet conditions but.

Warren Formo: 

Right, right, well, and that’s just it, you know, part of this challenge we have in water issues is the issues themselves changed. I remember 2006, ’07, ’08, ’09 were relatively dry years. And even the issues that were coming to us were different than we had a series of wet years and we had a whole different set of data being collected. And also that pointed some agency folks towards different solutions. And we kept saying, well, oh, wait a minute, what if we get 2006-’08 again, and we may be headed back there. You know, I know we’re not as droughty as we had been back then. Not as dry. But I’m pretty sure that we’re going to see some of those cycles, those dryer patterns again, and hopefully, not only have farmers who have lived through it, you know, they’ll have their experience. But perhaps we can assemble some information to kind of help people manage those risks, whether it’s super wet, super dry in between, you know. There is no perfect practice across all of those different, you know, weather patterns and farmers have to make these adjustments on the fly in season almost constantly.

Jamie: 

Warren, thanks for joining us. We definitely will take you up on that and have another podcast on more specific interests in probably in tile rainage and some of the other hings you’re doing in the uture. But just want to say hank you for being a friend to griculture and a friend to rinsco, and for being taking the time out of your busy sch dule to be part of the water tab e podcast. Thank you very muc .

Warren Formo: 

Thank you.

Jamie: 

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