Imagine waking up one day and learning that your community’s water supply is contaminated by a pollutant in concentrations deemed unsafe by officials. That’s what happened to the citizens of Perham, Minnesota, in the 1990s, when workers discovered that the level of nitrates — a pollutant that can cause serious illness or death in infants — in city well water was so high that they needed to dilute it with water sourced from uncontaminated wells to meet public health standards. The likely culprit was the use by local farmers of nitrogen fertilizer, which, if applied in quantities greater than what crops use, can end up contaminating groundwater. The finding set the stage for a potential standoff between farmers focused on growing crops and environmentalists focused on keeping water clean.

Perham is far from alone. Across the United States, farmers add nitrogen to soils to boost the production of economically important crops such as corn, wheat, edible beans, sugar beets and potatoes — but some of it ultimately ends up in surface water and groundwater, contaminating what is for many nearby communities their primary source of drinking water. Environmentalists criticize farmers for irresponsible land management, while farmers say they’re doing everything they can to reduce pollution while producing food to feed their communities.

Farmers and water resource managers in Perham, however, took a different approach than the all-too-common finger pointing. In response to the discovery of nitrogen contamination, a group of city officials, staff from the local conservation district, farmers, members of the agribusiness community, concerned citizens and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture decided to go beyond finger pointing. Instead, they held a series of meetings in the early 2000s that focused on both securing clean drinking water and ensuring a strong agricultural economy, and that were rooted in the context of local conditions. In doing so, they found that what at first may seem like an irreconcilable difference can actually be resolved when the opposing sides look for common ground — offering a potential model for other communities dealing with conflicts between farmers and citizens.

Mutually Agreeable Solutions

Citizens are understandably interested in keeping nitrogen out of their drinking water because of the health risks it brings. But conversations surrounding clean drinking water often ignore the economic realities and real world limitations farmers face, says Dan Stoddard, assistant director of the Pesticide and Fertilizer Management Division at MDA — challenges like unpredictable rainfall, variability in soil types, logistical constraints and the economic risk inherent in farming. “The non-ag community just doesn’t understand how difficult it is to farm,” he says, “what the risks are, what the challenges are, how many decisions need to be made, and how many of those decisions are really farm- or field-specific.”

Once they were assured their economic constraints were understood, farmers whose land is closest to the city’s drinking water wells were able to find mutually agreeable conservation solutions. What Perham residents quickly found is that farmers are interested in keeping nitrogen out of the groundwater, too — not only to keep their own drinking water safe, but also due to the economics of fertilizer management: Any nitrogen fertilizer not used by crops is a wasted resource and money down the drain.

Once they were assured their economic constraints were understood, farmers whose land is closest to the city’s drinking water wells were able to find mutually agreeable conservation solutions. Some growers switched from growing Russet Burbank potato, a ubiquitous variety with high fertilizer needs, to growing Russet Alturas, a new variety that doesn’t need as much nitrogen. Others transitioned sensitive fields from nitrogen-intensive crops to alfalfa production, which has a high potential to reduce nitrogen losses. Additional changes adopted by growers included using a more expensive and more efficient fertilizer and putting land into the Conservation Reserve Program, in which the federal government pays farmers to plant farmland with noncrop vegetation. In one case, the city bought farmland that was close to the public well and especially vulnerable to contamination and redeveloped it as a residential property.

Key to Success

Conversations focusing on the intersection of agriculture and water quality are occurring in other communities across Minnesota and elsewhere. Peggy Knapp, retired director of programs at Freshwater Society, a Minnesota environmental non-profit, led a series of conversations between environmentalists and farmers similar to those held in Perham. Rather than focusing on drinking water, these conversations revolved around protecting a trout stream fishery in the south-central part of the state.

“You can’t start the conversation by saying, ‘Your nitrogen is polluting my water.’” – Peggy KnappFrom her experience, Knapp says successful dialogue between farmers and environmentalists has begun when the emphasis is on conservation as a part of a business plan for farming. Without this economic framing, farmers may get the message that environmental groups don’t care about their needs.

“It says to the producer, ‘You don’t even know me. You don’t even know what I do,’” she says. “You can’t start the conversation by saying, ‘Your nitrogen is polluting my water.’”

Moving beyond business as usual was possible in Perham because the economic realities of farming were at the center of the discussion and the proposed changes to nitrogen management were based on demonstration projects on area farms. Farmers were willing to try new nitrogen management practices when they had seen examples on fields they were familiar with and by peers they know and respect. Now decades after their work began, Perham is seeing improved drinking water quality with the concentration of nitrate declining.

Luke Stuewe, a hydrologist with MDA working in the Perham area, thinks the local focus of the effort has been the key to success. Through community conversations, local demonstration projects, and a data-driven understanding of the problem at hand, he says, solutions to agricultural water quality problems are possible.

“The part that was really critical to this community’s success was the engagement of the community in the initial phases,” he says. “If we want to be successful in other locations we have to replicate this engagement.”

As farmers work to improve their efficiency, they ask those outside of agriculture to continue to try to understand their circumstances.

“I would hope that [environmentalists] would keep an open mind and listen to the growers, the people who are in the agriculture and farming community, and take their words to heart,” says Paul Gray, a fourth-generation potato grower from Clear Lake, Minnesota, who has been involved in conversations about nitrogen management on a statewide level. And if the opportunity for conversation between farmer and environmentalist emerges, Gray says, “I’d sit and listen. Tell me your story. And then before you judge me,  let’s see if there’s something we can learn from.” View Ensia homepage

Editor’s note: Brian Bohman produced this feature as a participant in the Ensia Mentor Program. His mentor for the project was Rachel Cernansky. Bohman has received funding from the Institute on the Environment, which also funds Ensia, for work developing a shared vocabulary for agricultural water quality issues.