June 30, 2011 at 8:47 a.m.

Farmers eager to learn more from 'Discovery Farms' program

Farmers eager to learn more from 'Discovery Farms' program
Farmers eager to learn more from 'Discovery Farms' program

When someone's been in farming for as long as John Peterson has, you wouldn't think there'd be much he still had to learn. But Peterson jumped at the chance to have his farm near Almelund set up as a sampling site in the "Discovery Farms" program. The program is a producer-led effort to learn about soils and how various farm practices affect soils.

"Discovery Farms" are being actively monitored at six locations in Minnesota and there are sites using a similar analysis model in west Wisconsin.

Peterson tells a reporter he is curious to see what the results will be from the sampling station located in his corn field. The Discovery Farm station is attached to a constructed flume, at the end of a swale or waterway in a hill. Tubes sample the run-off entering the structure, while devices track rainfall amounts, which are correlated to run-off as it flows. The station is tracking an 8.5 acre corn field. (Peterson has 1,500 acres in total.)

"You can't comprehend it (the run off) until you see it...it was seven inches deep (in the collection flume)," Peterson said of a visit he made in springtime. It was at the peak of snowmelt, but still, "That's got to be 1,000 gallons a minute, and multiply that by all the farms."

Peterson takes it kinda personal when people point fingers at farming practices for depleting the land, sending sediment into rivers. Participating in the Discovery Farms analysis is his small effort at finding the actual truth and helping agriculture address whatever that turns out to be.

The monitoring station is on his land for at least five years-- maybe seven.

A program representative said the stations run about $10,000 each to erect.

Each station has the ability to be read remotely, so local Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) staff can be alerted by the main team to retrieve their local data as sample bottles and data recorders reach capacity.

At the end of each year the lab test results will be released through SWCD and the sponsoring group, Minnesota Agricultural Water Resources Coalition, which has a contract with Chisago County SWCD for this work.

Warren Fomo, of MAWRC, said 16 farm organizations make up the membership. The goal is promoting and improving conservation practices. Primary funding for Discovery Farms is through Minnesota Corn, Soybean and Turkey Research and Promotion Councils, the MN Agriculture Department and Legacy Amendment funds.

Dr. George Rehm, self-described "retired" university soil scientist, attended an informational open house at Peterson's. Everybody gathered in the equipment shed for sweets and coffee and then picked their way through the knee-high corn plants, a few hundred feet to the monitoring station.

The science can't be collected without farmers' cooperation, said Rehm. Peterson's place was a natural for the program because it has soils that need to be researched and because it's in the St. Croix River watershed, but also because Peterson was willing and eager.

*****

Peterson has a naturally inquisitive manner about him, and even though he points out he is not college educated, he can easily converse about new and better ways to prep and plant his farm.

Part of the open house included a look-see at a strip till unit Peterson made himself (with son Nate) out of parts. It was modified so as not to dig too deep. It uses rippled colters to clear a debris-free strip, so soil warms faster in the spring. He uses it on a separate pass and then goes in with the corn planter.

Considering the geology of this part of the state, especially with Peterson's "smeary" soils, his fields don't do so well following a pure no-till approach. This is just one of many modifications he has layered over ever-evolving expert advice on what to do or not do.

"I used to think dirt was dirt," Peterson shared. "Then, the more you learn about soil you realize how alive it is."

Peterson believes farmers have the capability to earn a living, get top yields, protect the soil fertility and reduce run-off-- but they have to be innovative and observant and learn from projects like this.


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