Minnesota Water Quality Research Farms Network

Project Staff: 

Ann Lewandowski, Research Fellow, Water Resources Center


Minnesota Department of Agriculture Clean Water Legacy FY07


Final Report: Feasibility of an On-Farm Water Quality Program in Minnesota

This is the final report of a feasibility study funded by a Minnesota Department of Agriculture Clean Water Legacy FY07 research appropriation. The study examined the potential value, costs, designs, and support for a long-term program aimed at answering questions about the relationship between agricultural land uses and water quality through outreach and water quality monitoring on active commercial Minnesota farms.

The Wisconsin Discovery Farms program inspired discussions of on-farm monitoring in Minnesota and is the primary model for a Minnesota program. The Wisconsin program has been on the ground for seven years – demonstrating substantial and unique impacts, and providing Minnesota with many lessons. The Discovery Farms have clearly affected farmers, rule-makers, and other stakeholders who now expect information from the program to be part of water quality discussions. One of the lessons learned from Wisconsin is the importance of the program directors and the steering committee in ensuring that the program is directed by and relevant to producers.

Minnesota already has a strong research station network and an extensive history of water quality research and monitoring across the state. This report reviews some of those efforts. Any new on-farm water quality program can build upon these strengths while filling the gaps in farm-scale monitoring and outreach.

The Discovery Farms concept was presented to stakeholders at meetings across the state. Participants expressed a mix of enthusiasm and skepticism toward the idea. They were enthusiastic about the potential for a new approach to water quality issues, but concerned about the possibility of creating a program that did nothing new. Many recognized that – depending on the leadership – the program might generate biased, unhelpful results, or would not take advantage of producer-centered problem solving opportunities. Alternatively, some thought the program would duplicate existing monitoring or research approaches, would generate data that is not effectively utilized, or would draw resources away from other water quality efforts. Despite these concerns, support for the program has generally been strong.


Based on the high level of stakeholder interest, Minnesota should pursue a program modeled after the Wisconsin Discovery Farms. The mission should be to create a meaningful way for the agricultural community to be engaged in water quality issues. This will be accomplished by establishing an on-farm monitoring network with the goal of discovering and understanding agricultural water quality issues at the level of the farm system. The program should serve the needs of the impaired waters (Total Maximum Daily Load) process, but should not be constrained by the TMDL approach to addressing water quality.

Outreach is a central component of this program. The first outreach objective is to create an opportunity for producers to learn from each other about the relationship between agriculture and water quality. The second objective is to communicate this understanding to non-farmers including researchers, policy-makers, and the general public. The program should promote open and honest communications among farmers, non-farmers, and government agencies about the problems and possible solutions to environmental and economic issues.

A network of water quality monitoring stations should be established on working commercial farms to assess runoff at the field or multi-field scale. The monitoring should be designed to collect high-quality data that informs policy and management decisions. It should fill the data gap between plot level research and watershed-scale monitoring to improve the empirical understanding of farm-scale agricultural runoff. In addition to water quality data, the program should collect information about farm practices, finances, and crop data such as yield to gain a systems-level understanding of agricultural water quality. The initial goal at each site should be to observe the hydrology of a farm system. After the observation period, local committees may choose to target monitoring to answer specific questions.

The monitoring network is not meant to be a set of research stations, but should complement existing research programs. It is an opportunity to validate research results, examine the economic implications of recommendations, and to suggest future research directions.

On-farm monitoring sites should be selected to represent major agricultural systems and physiographic regions across the state. Monitoring designs should allow for comparisons with Wisconsin and North Dakota Discovery Farms data. Farmer-cooperators should be selected, in part, for their ability and willingness to contribute to the outreach goals of the program. At least some of the sites should be positioned within monitored watersheds to examine the relationship between farm runoff/drainage and surface water quality. This will be important for testing assumptions about the contributions of upland agriculture to lake and stream water quality.

The effectiveness of the program depends on it being led primarily by producers. The structure of the program should follow the Wisconsin model in which program directors answer to a strong steering committee dominated by members of the major agricultural producer organizations. To facilitate communication, the steering committee should also include representatives of other water quality stakeholders including agencies, researchers, and the environmental community. The institution that houses the program will affect the perceived identity of the program, but the strength of the steering committee will be even more important in ensuring that the program is respected by producers and other diverse interests.

The envisioned program will cost about $500,000 to $1 million per year. Funding should come from diverse sources to avoid being tied to the mission of a single agency or group. Cost estimates should realistically account for the large time commitments needed to do on-farm work, to effectively build relationships and conduct outreach, and to secure funding on an ongoing basis. Start-up may be made easier by taking advantage of existing monitoring infrastructure at sites such as those described in Table 1.

A program should be established as soon as possible to take advantage of the momentum created by the discussions started during this feasibility study. The Wisconsin Discovery Farms program has shared many documents that will be instructive as Minnesota goes through similar steps. If planning activities begin this fall, monitoring equipment could be installed beginning in spring.

More information: 

Ann Lewandowski
Water Resources Center
University of Minnesota
Email: alewand@umn.edu
Phone: 612-624-6765