Water-conscious farm family showcases controlled tile drainage as a conservation method

U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, left, with farmer Jared Nordick.

U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, left, with farmer Jared Nordick.

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

Jared Nordick, 38, rented his first 65 acres from a neighbor when he was 15 years old. Right from the get-go, he practiced land stewardship side by side with his father Gerald, who learned how to care for the land from his dad.

The father-son team planted trees for a shelter belt to reduce wind erosion and tended to buffers and grass waterways. Nordick was among the first farmers certified by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Water Quality Certification Program.

So, it’s not surprising that the Nordicks jumped at the opportunity to use a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service to install patterned tile drainage with water level controls. Thirsty crops in late July — when rain can be scarce and fields dry — can send roots down to find that water held on the land below the surface using the innovative drainage system.

Approximately 80 people attended a field day on the Nordick farm. The field day was made possible, in part, through a Minnesota Corn Growers Association Conservation Innovation Grant.

Approximately 80 people attended a field day on the Nordick farm. The field day was made possible, in part, through a Minnesota Corn Growers Association Conservation Innovation Grant.

The project takes a field of approximately 150 acres and divides it in three parts in order to compare the new method with another section where a tile drainage system has no water retention structures. A third section has no drainage at all.

Nordick points out that, contrary to what some critics charge, it is the undrained land that poses the most serious water quality challenge. When spring rains saturate undrained fields, the water has no choice but to flow over the surface and carry away soil and nutrients, he says.  A good tile system allows the land to act like a sponge and hold more water, letting out slowly through the drain. The control structures add yet another means to hold on to water and make use of it on the farm, particularly when the summer months turn dry and crops need extra moisture.

In another field, the Nordicks also engineered at saturated buffer — a tile drain flows through the soil of a berm planted with native grasses whose roots take up the moisture and capture nutrients like nitrogen fertilizer before that water can flow into nearby waterways.

Gerald Nordick introduces the saturated buffer site at the field day.

Gerald Nordick introduces the saturated buffer site at the field day.

A field demonstration day on June 23 showcased these innovative approaches to water quality on the farm. The event drew elected officials from throughout the region as well as area farmers, to get them interested in controlled tile drainage. Minnesota Corn Growers Association supported the field day with a grant through its new Conservation Innovation Grant Program.

“There are four sub-mains to the irrigation system, so we can create these blocks where we keep the water at different levels,” Nordick said. “We thought if we can hold onto an acre-inch of water (27,000 gallons per acre) or maybe three acre-inches, we might be improving our yield, anywhere from zero to 200 bushels an acre. No one knows so we’re here to find out how those different levels improve yield, or hurt it. And maybe in the process we are keeping nutrients out of the waterways, and holding back water that would otherwise contribute to flooding.”

Jared Nordick welcomes guest to the field day on his family farm.

Jared Nordick welcomes guest to the field day on his family farm.

This last item drew the interest of Rep. Collin Peterson, who toured the farm recently and brought two House colleagues along to see firsthand what progressive crop farmers are doing in and effort to reduce the threat of flood in the Red River Valley.

Water quality is not a new concern for Nordick. Jared joined the Wilkin County Soil and Water Conservation District as an elected representative a few years ago, and quickly climbed the ranks, now serving as chairman of the local agency that works with farmers on nutrient and input management, to assure water quality.

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Corn farmers: Time to make your voices heard on ethanol, atrazine and trade

Anna Boroff

Anna Boroff, MCGA Senior Public Policy Director.

Written by Anna Boroff, MCGA Senior Public Policy Director

Bad news: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is once again attempting to slash the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) and cut the amount of corn ethanol blended in our fuel supply. The EPA is also using faulty science in a risk assessment for atrazine, which could curb the availability and use of the effective herbicide. Finally, Congress has yet to pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which would help break down trade barriers, establish high standard rules for trade and open new markets for U.S. farmers.

Good news: Corn farmers have an opportunity to make their voices heard on each of these issues that affect their farm and their wallet. Here’s how:

NCGA mailer
If you’re a member of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association (MCGA), you should have received a mailer recently from the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA). All you have to do is sign each of the three postcards that address the RFS, atrazine and TPP and mail them back in the envelope provided.

From there, NCGA will send the RFS and atrazine postcards directly to EPA. The TPP postcard will be sent to your Congressional representative.

Other options
If you did not receive the mailer (or maybe your dog ate it) and you’d still like to make your voice heard on these important issues, here’s how:

  • EPA is accepting public comments through July 11 on its proposal to slash the corn ethanol portion of the RFS. If EPA carries out its proposal, it could result in $271 million in lost revenue for American corn farmers. You can easily make your voice heard and submit comments on EPA’s misguided proposal here.
  • The comment period on EPA’s preliminary risk assessment of atrazine has been extended to Oct. 4, 2016. To express your support for a fair review of atrazine — one that doesn’t use study’s deemed “flawed” by EPA’s own Science Advisory Panel — go here.
  • Since 2010, corn prices have declined 34 percent and net farm income is at its lowest level in nearly 15 years. Passing TPP can help reverse this trend. Let your Congressional representative or Senator know just how important TPP is to your farm by clicking here.

Why speak out?
We know you’re probably worn down by the gridlock in Washington and the feeling that your voice simply doesn’t matter any more. We also understand that it gets tiresome constantly battling with the likes of EPA on ethanol and other issues.

It’s tempting to just throw in the towel and stand silently on the sidelines.

Take it from those of us at MCGA who work daily on important agriculture policy issues like TPP, atrazine and ethanol: The voice of the corn farmer still matters. A lot.

For example, a proposal last Fall would have effectively ended crop insurance as we knew it. This would have had a devastating impact on America’s corn farmers and the entire economy, especially in rural areas. What defeated the misguided proposal was the grassroots actions of corn farmers, many of them from Minnesota.

Farmers contacted their Congressional representatives and Senators and told them just how damaging an end to crop insurance would be. Those farmers’ voices were heard and the proposal was defeated.

It’s time to take action again on the RFS, atrazine and TPP. We might not win every battle, but we can make sure that our voices are heard.

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How to “agvocate” for agriculture: A quick guide from a former Dairy Princess

Nicole Krumrie is a former Dairy Princess who currently serves as an intern at MCGA. In this post, Nicole shares some tips for becoming an "agvocate" for agriculture.

Nicole Krumrie is a former Dairy Princess who currently serves as an intern at MCGA. In this post, Nicole shares some tips for becoming an “agvocate” for agriculture.

Written by Nicole Krumrie

While I was serving as a dairy princess, my main objective was to talk to consumers about what I was doing on my farm. These experiences were very beneficial as I was able to meet people throughout the state of Minnesota and share my unique farming story with them. I was able to provide them with information on how I cared for the animals I was working with, and ensure them that the dairy products they consume or should  consume everyday  were safe, wholesome, and nutritious.

We all know that dairy princesses are  well regarded in Minnesota. This is mainly because of the butter sculpture tradition, but dairy farmers throughout Minnesota recognize how important dairy princesses are to the dairy community. After I hung up my dairy princess sash and retired my crown, I realized how much work is left to be done in bridging the gap between consumers and agriculture — not just  dairy  farming, but agriculture in general.

Why wasn’t there more agricultural royalty?! A poultry prince, or even a corn queen?

But, there isn’t. It is up to us, as farmers and agriculturalists, to “agvocate” for what we care about. Part of being a farmer today includes making time to agvocate for yourself and agriculture overall. Here are three small steps that you can start doing  to help build your own bridge with consumers. These steps are effective whether you’re communicating face-to-face, at an event, or on social media.

Keep it simple
There is so much propaganda, false information, and jargon going around when it comes to communicating about agriculture. Words and phrases like RFOs, CRPs, and DDGs can really cause people to tune out of what you are saying. It’s like me listening to rap music, half the time I have no idea what they are trying to say, so I just flip to a different station.

Talk in a way that others will understand, so that they don’t flip the station on you.

Be honest
Above all, honesty is key. When I say honesty, I don’t mean a husband telling his wife that she looks fine after she has been asking him several times how she looks without the husband even glancing up. Look at what’s going on your farm — really take a look, and tell us what’s going on. Farming isn’t all cupcakes and sprinkles. Farming is hard, and that is rarely talked about.

Having those sometimes hard conversations will build a strong bridge that will allow you to connect with others.

Tell YOUR story
Sometimes it seems like once you hear one story you hear them all. Damsel in distress, prince turns all heroic, saves her, and they live happily ever after. The end. Sure, a dairy farm produces milk and a grain farm produces crops, but what happens on that farm? All farms are different and unique to one another, and each farmer does something different.

Talk about what YOU do on YOUR farm and WHY you do it.

If consumers aren’t talking to farmers about their food and agricultural practices, who are they talking to? Sometimes taking that first step into agvocating may be scary. But, I can assure you it is worth it.


Nicole Krumrie is a student at the University of Minnesota and works as an intern with the Minnesota Corn Growers Association.

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Citizens of Albert Lea: Kernel Nation is coming on June 30

MCGA’s mascot Maizey will be at Kernel Nation in Albert Lea on June 30. Come get a high-five and a selfie!

Who: Minnesota’s corn farmers

What: Kernel Nation

Where: Edgewater Park in Albert Lea; several fueling stations in Albert Lea

When: 3-6:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 30, 2016

Why: Because we all enjoy a farm-themed good time as part of Kernel Nation.

Minnesota’s corn farmers are bringing a piece of the farm to Edgewater Park in Albert Lea as part of its inaugural Kernel Nation event on June 30.

Get ready for Kernel Nation!
Join the Minnesota Corn Growers Association (MCGA) from 3-6:30 p.m. at Edgewater Bay Pavilion, Edgewater Park, for family fun, food, music, prizes and more. Tractors and other farm equipment will be on display for kids to explore and climb behind the wheel. Kernel Nation attendees can also walk through the 45-foot long Biofuels Mobile Education Center, which is packed with information and activities about homegrown ethanol.

“We’re all part of Kernel Nation, whether you farm or not,” said Noah Hultgren, who farms near Willmar and serves as MCGA President. “Agriculture touches all of our lives, so we wanted to put together a fun event where families can learn a little bit more about life on the farm and where their food and fuel comes from. Most importantly, we want people to come out and have fun.”

In addition to family fun at Edgewater Park, Kernel Nation also features flex-fuel promotions at local fueling stations sponsored by the American Lung Association in Minnesota’s Clean Air Choice Team. From 4-6 p.m. on June 30, E85 fuel – a blend of 85 percent homegrown ethanol and 15 percent regular gasoline – will be discounted by 85 cents per gallon at the following locations in Albert Lea:

  • Freeborn County Coop (302 E. Clark St.)
  • Freeborn County Coop (1840 Margaretha Ave.)
  • Kwik Trip (2611 Bridge Ave.)

Once your vehicle is filled up with E85 and you’ve had your fill of Kernel Nation fun at Edgewater Park, stick around for the Bayside Ski Show at 7 p.m.

All activities are free and open to the public. Additional details are available at www.kernelnation.com.

Kernel Nation is also coming to Willmar on July 7. Check back next week for complete details.

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USDA Under Secretary Alexis Taylor visits Minnesota crop farm

Randall Thalmann, Adam Thalmann, Brian Thalmann, USDA Under Secretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services Alexis Taylor and Bob Ness from Rep. Colin Peterson's office at the Thalmann family farm.

Randall Thalmann, Adam Thalmann, Brian Thalmann, USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services Alexis Taylor and Bob Ness from Rep. Colin Peterson’s office at the Thalmann family farm.

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

What would you do? What would you say? If you had the opportunity to host a top official from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on your family farm?

For an hour on Wednesday, Plato, Minn., farmer Brian Thalmann, his dad Randall, and his son Adam, visited with Alexis Taylor, Deputy Under Secretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services at USDA. Taylor is the official directly in charge of the farm program, crop insurance and the USDA’s export promotion agency.

One of the topics Brian brought up was credit, which has become tight in farm country and in the current market environment, yet represents the lifeblood of farmers.

“Credit depends on one thing,” Thalmann said. “A strong crop insurance program. This is the only thing that gives banks the confidence to say yes to farmers for the operating and capital-expenditure loans that keep them in operation every growing season.”

Randall and Taylor walked through a history of the ups and downs of the farm program, both agreeing that there are parts that work and others that represent a work in progress, which is the reason for the under secretary to visit with farmers.

Taylor grew up on an Iowa farm and is well-versed in how the USDA’s programs impact farmers. Thalmann focused on how their family farm, a continuous venture since 1877, depends on a vital side business.

Several decades ago, when Randall was first farming on his own, he became a seed dealer. And even though it was only 10 percent of the farm’s income, the USDA farm program at that time excluded the Thalmanns on that basis. The seed business — they grow custom soybeans for seed for Stine and its host of major seed company customers — now represents between 30-40 percent of the farm’s revenue.

Thankfully, farm program rules no longer discriminate against such entrepreneurial activity.

The Thalmanns also covered other challenges they’ve faced with USDA farm programs over the years and discussed possible solutions with Taylor.

With water quality and environmental concerns about corn farming rising, the Thalmanns spent part of the visit talking about conservation efforts on their farm and investments the Minnesota Corn Growers Association is making in research and initiatives to help farmers better manage nitrogen fertilizer and protect water quality.

Randall and Brian also highlighted the incredible bounty of biomass and organic matter in the soil generated by today’s corn varieties. With the root mass and the stalks and leaves that remain after harvest, they are adding 20,000 pounds of organic matter per acre — biomass that returns to the earth and enriches the soil.

The importance of ethanol to Minnesota farmers was also discussed. The Thalmanns are shareholders at Heartland Corn Products ethanol plant in Winthrop, built in 1995.

“Our goal is to add value to 100 percent of our grain,” Brian said. “Over the years we have been able to build up our investment in Heartland Corn Products, so that together with our seed business, we’ve achieved that goal. We also contract with other area farmers to produce some of our soybean, oats and wheat seed, so we are helping other farmers add value to their production. Really, adding value is the way for farmers to build a strong future for American agriculture.”

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Raising the next generation of ag innovators: The Minnesota 4H Science of Agriculture Challenge

Anna and Tyler were at the Lonsdale Expo talking about their Minnesota 4H Science of Ag Challenge project.

Anna and Tyler were at the Lonsdale Expo talking about their Minnesota 4H Science of Agriculture Challenge project.

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

What fires up a kid’s curiosity?

What transforms a student into a lifelong learner?

Turns out it can be the same experiences that mold a young person into a “marketable, competitive job seeker, who can find a place in the agriculture sector — there are 60,000 jobs a year that need to be filled,” says Joshua Rice, the Science of Agriculture specialist with the Minnesota Extension Center for Youth Development.

Minnesota 4H has set up a program, unique in the nation, called Minnesota 4H Science of Agriculture Challenge. Students form teams and go out into their local community to talk to farmers and agribusiness leaders to determine an agricultural problem facing their community. The students then go to work with mentors, and use their growing skills in STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — to create a potential solution.

From June 21-23, 15 4H teams, comprising 60 students from sixth grade through freshman year of college, will take part in the culmination of the Challenge. They will present projects to a panel of judges. These projects solved issues ranging from finding stray cattle by using GPS-enabled eartags, to reducing nitrogen loss from farm fields through the ideal plantings and designs of vegetative buffers, to transforming food waste into an energy source.  The top three teams will be awarded scholarships to help them continue their studies.

Here is Anna prepping bottles for her Minnesota 4H Science of Ag Challenge project.

Here is Anna prepping bottles for her Minnesota 4H Science of Agriculture Challenge project.

The Minnesota Corn Growers Association is a proud sponsor of the Challenge and will also participate in the judging.

Videos of these imaginative and innovative projects can be viewed at the Challenge web page

Food waste to energy
Brother and sister Brian and Anna Prchal of LeSueur, joined by their cousin Tyler of Hopkins, did a range of experiments arising out of the use of food waste as a component in processes that create energy and raise more food.

They used school food waste in two ways: combining different feedstocks like apples or bananas with cow manure to see which mixture produced the most methane, which is a gas burned for energy (apples ended up producing the most). They also mixed food waste with sawdust and manufactured briquettes from it. Using a calorimenter they built themselves, they measured which briquette offered the most energy when burned.

As part of the process of developing their project, Brian, Anna and Tyler toured Hometown BioEnergy, a power generation facility that takes in agricultural waste and waste from a local processed food facility and runs it through an anaerobic digester to produce biogas and generate electricity. Once the feedstock has been depleted (about 40 days in the tank), it can be used as a nutrient-rich fertilizer. The LeSueur team grew plots of corn and switchgrass to compare the yield from different rates of this fertilizer.

Teaching something new
“Hometown BioEnergy was really neat for me, because I am going to school for mechanical engineering,” said Brian, who just finished his freshman year at South Dakota State University. “Seeing huge cranes moving materials from bin to bin and seeing how the agitating and heating processes worked, I was watching all that. The factory tour was definitely one of the highlights this year.”

Anna, a rising sophomore at New Prague High School interested in veterinary medicine, loves communicating about agriculture to people in her community.

“It’s really cool how there are these things that people deal with every day — throwing away their food, for instance — and they don’t know what happens to the food waste, or how it can be used,” she said. “So we can come in and teach them something new.”

Brian and Anna talking to school children about their Minnesota 4H Science of Agriculture Challenge project.

Brian and Anna talking to school children about their Minnesota 4H Science of Agriculture Challenge project.

Going national?
Rice hopes other states begin their own Science of Agriculture Challenge programs, and that eventually, there could be a national competition. He says that when he was a kid he would have loved to take part in a program like this.

“I grew up in 4H in West Virginia and participated in the program for 12 years,” said Rice, who was a high school agriculture teacher prior to becoming the director of the Challenge. “I participated in all the 4H public speaking events when I was a child and if this opportunity would have been presented, I definitely would have participated and I know my parents would have encouraged me to participate too. That college scholarship money would have come in handy.”

MCGA funded the scholarships and the luncheon on the final day of the program. Other supporters include American Crystal Sugar, AgStar Financial Services, Jenny-O Turkey stores, Pentair and Rahr Corporation.

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Next generation of Taiwan swine producers visits Minnesota corn farm, ethanol plant

A U.S. Grains Council trade team from Taiwan visited Harold Wolle's farm near St. James on Tuesday.

A U.S. Grains Council trade team from Taiwan visited Harold Wolle’s farm near St. James on Tuesday.

A U.S. Grains Council (USGC) trade team of Taiwanese swine producers, government officials, researchers and association representatives got a firsthand look at Minnesota corn farming and ethanol production on Tuesday.

Harold Wolle, a fifth-generation family farmer and First Vice President of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association (MCGA), hosted the group at his family’s corn and soybean farm near St. James. Harold and his son Matthew answered the team’s questions related to marketing, quality, planting decisions and costs. Neighboring farmers also attended to talk about pig farming and other challenges faced by Minnesota farmers.

From there, the Taiwan team traveled to Claremont to tour the farmer-owned Al-Corn Clean Fuel ethanol plant. Al-Corn CEO Randy Doyal walked the team through the ethanol-making

Matthew Wolle showing the Taiwan trade team some GPS and mapping technology used on the Wolle's farm.

Matthew Wolle showing the Taiwan trade team some GPS and mapping technology used on the Wolle’s farm.

process, then led a tour of the plant that culminated with a group photo in front several large piles of distillers dried grains, a high-protein livestock feed that’s a by-product of the ethanol-making process.

By visiting the Wolle family farm and Al-Corn, team members, who are grain end-users, gained a greater confidence in the United States’ ability to supply them with high-quality coarse grains and co-products. Minnesota is an active member of the USGC, a private, non-profit organization that works to develop exports in more than 50 countries from 10 worldwide offices and its Washington, D.C., headquarters.

“Visits like this one help strengthen relationships between Minnesota corn farmers and end-users of our products in other countries,” said Wolle, who also serves as First Vice President of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association (MCGA). “It’s great to get these folks out to a Minnesota farm so they can see firsthand the care and dedication we put into growing the best crops possible, while protecting our land, soil and water resources.”

The team also attended the World Pork Expo and visited a corn farm and ethanol facility in Iowa

The Taiwan team in front of a pile of distillers dried grains at the Al-Corn Clean Fuel ethanol plant in Claremont.

The Taiwan team in front of a pile of distillers dried grains at the Al-Corn Clean Fuel ethanol plant in Claremont.

before venturing to Minnesota.

“Taiwan’s swine industry is one of the largest feed consumers in Taiwan, using about 40 percent of the country’s complete feeds,” said USGC Chairman Alan Tiemann, who farms in Nebraska. “It is key that the Council and its partners in state’s like Minnesota continue to help Taiwanese swine producers innovate and expand their livestock production so that this industry will be a driver in the coarse grain trade.”

You can learn more about the USGC here and MCGA here.

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In The Land of 10,000 Lakes, farmers support clean water solutions

Soil scientist Satoshi Ishii demonstrates how bioreactors work

Soil scientist Satoshi Ishii demonstrates how bioreactors work.

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

Kim Gorans , his dad, uncles, brother-in-law and cousins — 11 family members in all — work together raising turkeys and corn on their farm just south of Willmar. They are striving to make their land produce bountiful food and clean water.

Since 2006, Gorans’ farm site, close to Lake Kandiyohi, has been home to a bioreactor research project. A bioreactor is a filtration system set up at the edge of the farm field to filter tile drainage water. Microbes living on woodchips inside the bioreactor “eat” nitrate nitrogen.

Nitrates pose a compelling challenge for farmers. Nitrogen is a vital nutrient needed in the field to feed the crops. It can come from natural mineralization, previous crops that fix nitrogen such as soybean or alfalfa, manures, or commercial fertilizer. Nitrogen in the water soluble form of nitrates that have left the field have potential to harm the environment and drinking water.

“There is a lot of innovation going on at this farm, and the bioreactor is only one piece of this puzzle. We need to thank Kim and his family for hosting this research project here,” says Carl Rosen, director of University of Minnesota Department of Soil, Water and Climate. He is a co-principal investigator, along with Gary Feyereisen, a USDA-ARS engineer who has conducted bioreactor research for the past five years.

Bioreactor design
The bioreactor was initially designed by retired Prof. John Moncrief to work as a single chamber, filled with wood chips, which would denitrify the water.

In 2014, the design was updated and improved to make it over into eight different chambers where they could test four different treatments, each replicated twice, to compare and discover the most effective way of reducing nitrates. Microbiologist Mike Sadowski, environmental microbiologist Satoshi Ishii, both with the University of Minnesota’s Dept. of Soil, Water and Climan, and bioengineer Eshan Ghani all presented information about the project at a recent field day.

Farmer Kim Gorans

Farmer Kim Gorans

Farmer groups have donated upwards of a million dollars to this bioreactor project. Minnesota Corn Growers Association (MCGA), Minnesota Soybean Growers, Minnesota Turkey Growers and the Minnesota Agricultural Water Resource Center (MAWRC) have all supported the research.

Kim Gorans describes their farming operation as the quest to make their fields over into the perfect growth medium for their crops. In such a system there would be an ideal level of nitrates available to feed the growing crop — spoon fed when needed and in just the right amount for the plants to make use of it. He doesn’t want any flowing beyond his fields—it’s both an economic and environmental issue.

“We raise 60 million pounds of turkeys a year, in 60 turkey barns, and we crop 4,000 acres,” Gorans said. “We run our own feed mill and spread manure on 10,000 acres of our own land and other farmers who are our customers. Back in 2006, I was at some organic farming seminars and they were talking about turkey manure, poultry manure as an ideal organic fertilizer because of a slower release of nitrogen. It doesn’t hurt the earthworms and it’s got bacterial life in it. It’s got all the micro nutrients and the NPK (Nitrogen-Phosphorous-Potassium) isn’t that bad. It just didn’t make sense to me that we could have the most ideal fertilizer and we were made to treat it like toxic waste.”

Constantly improving
So the Gorans continually test and improve their fertilizer application and cultivation methods. They see the bioreactor as one more element in creating the perfect farm. In 2009, Gorans’ farm became the first Minnesota Discovery Farms site, a farmer-led nutrient research program which has grown to a dozen farm sites across Minnesota.

“Minnesota farm groups are putting about $500,000 a year into all of these (Discovery Farms) sites,” said Warren Formo, director of Minnesota Ag Water Resource Center. He oversees the

The experimental bioreactor at Gorans Farm splits the flow of tile drainage water into eight different channels in order to do four different replicated treatments, to see which reduces nitrates most effectively.

The experimental bioreactor at Gorans Farm splits the flow of tile drainage water into eight different channels in order to do four different replicated treatments, to see which reduces nitrates most effectively.

Minnesota Discovery Farms network.

“This investment from the farmers pays for the gathering of the data, the analysis of the water, interacting with farmers, doing outreach activities like this field day —that’s farmer check-off money. We’ve got sites all the way from Dodge County in southeast Minnesota all the way up to Norman County in northwest Minnesota. The key is that this should be farmer led. We ask the farmers what we should be monitoring for and have them lead the search for better agronomic practices. Farmers are skeptical of growing advice from non-farmers, but they are very receptive to learning from other farmers. There is competition among farmers — we all want to do better than our neighbors – -but we are not blind to what works. When farmers are shown data that something is an improvement they are willing to look at it.”

In addition to the farmer-derived funding, this bioreactor work is supported through MnDRIVE, “Minnesota’s Discovery, Research and InnoVation Economy,” an initiative of the Minnesota Legislature to fund research at the University of Minnesota that will have a direct impact on the state’s quality of life and its economy. Clean water is important from both angles. The University of Minnesota BioTechnology Institute won the grant from the MnDRIVE program.

Biostimulation and Bioaugmentation
In this new experiment design, two of the chambers house a typical woodchip-filled filtration chamber. Another treatment is labeled ‘biostimulation’ – the researchers have added a carbon ‘energy source’ to boost the activity of the microbes.

In Minnesota, a good deal of the tile flow happens when water temperatures hover in the 40s in the early spring and late fall. Under these conditions, the bacteria’s respiration process slows down and nitrate consumption falls to almost nothing.

Biostimulation with carbon can help that, but another strategy is called bioaugmentation. The researchers have been sampling and testing the bacteria they find in the bioreactor, literally millions of different species are present on the woodchip surface, in order to isolate individuals that perform well under low temperature conditions. They then grow up batches of these high performers and add them back, to see if this ‘bioaugmentation’ will increase the consumption of nitrates. The fourth treatment puts together both biostimulation and bioaugmentation, to see if the combination will provide a bigger boost.

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Minnesota corn farmers stand up and speak out at RFS hearing

Dan Root

Dan Root

No distance is too far to travel to speak out in favor of clean, renewable and homegrown ethanol.

Once again, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is seeking to cut the amount of conventional corn ethanol blended in our fuel supply below what Congress called for in the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS).

The proposed cuts are a major blow to drivers, corn farmers and anyone who enjoys breathing cleaner air. Corn ethanol reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 36 percent compared to gasoline. It also saves consumers between 50 cents and $1 per gallon at the pump. For corn farmers, the 200 million gallon cut equates to 71.4 million bushels of corn going unsold and $271 million in lost revenue.

The RFS is working. There is no need to slash the conventional corn ethanol portion. That’s the message MCGA farmer-leaders Jerry Demmer and Dan Root are bringing today to a public RFS hearing in Kansas City today.

“The opportunity to continue moving America’s energy policy forward using corn ethanol and the RFS is right in front of us,” said Root, a farmer near Hayfield who serves on the board of directors of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association (MCGA). “Instead of wasting that opportunity by senselessly cutting the corn volume of the RFS, let’s continue to lead and move America’s energy policy forward.”

Demmer, who farms near Clarks Grove and serves on the Minnesota Corn Research & Promotion Council, shared his own story about the success of the RFS.

Jerry Demmer farms in Clarks Grove and is heading to Kansas City, Kan., for a public hearing on the RFS.

Jerry Demmer

“Minnesota was the first state in the nation to blend 10 percent ethanol in its fuel supply. We did it because the air quality in our metro regions was poor. Ethanol fixed that,” Demmer said. “As a corn farmer, it brings me a tremendous sense of pride to know that the crop I grow on my own farm helps people breathe easier and results in cleaner air. I’ve also been proud to see the role ethanol has played in revitalizing many of our rural communities.”

Yes, traveling to Kansas City is a long ways to go to offer comments to an EPA that seems stubbornly cemented in their anti-corn ethanol position. But if corn farmers don’t stand up and speak out for themselves, who will?

A big “Thank You” to Demmer and Root for taking the time to attend today’s hearing and speak out on behalf of MCGA’s 7,200 members, and all Minnesota corn farmers in favor of a strong corn ethanol portion of the RFS.

Make your voice heard
Just because you weren’t able to join Demmer and Root in Kansas City today doesn’t mean you can’t make your own voice heard on the RFS.

The EPA is accepting public comments on its RFS proposal through July 11. Go here to tell EPA that the RFS — especially the corn ethanol portion — is working. There is no need to cut it.

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Your typical corn, beans…and grapes farm

Sue and Jon Roisen at their Dawson Farm where they produce corn, soybeans and wine grapes.

Sue and Jon Roisen at their Dawson Farm where they produce corn, soybeans and wine grapes.

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

When Jon Roisen gave up his farrow/feed hog operation around the turn of the 21st century, he felt a bit of a void. He and his son Aaron were leafing through an AURI publication celebrating the relatively new cold-hardy wine grape variety, pioneered by University of Minnesota, called Frontenac.

They looked at each other and said yes to wine grapes.

Aaron went to New Zealand to learn oenology and the art of being a vintner, and in 2001, Jon and Susan Voight planted Frontenac wine grapes in an acre carved out of their corn and soybean operation.

Jon had done his homework, which is what he advises all start-up grape growers to do.

“Have a home for your fruit before you plant it,” Jon said. “Find out what the buyer wants. Don’t plant something you want to grow and then find a home for it. You’ve got to have all your ducks in a row before you go and do this, because the grapes may be an annual crop, but the vines are a perennial plant. You’re going be stuck with it. I can speak from experience: tearing out a variety, even just an acre, is a lot of work.”

Adding diversity
Overall, becoming a wine grape grower has offered the diversification the Roisens were looking for.

They’ve worked with three wine varieties, and now Susan has gotten into the table and grape juice trade, planting an additional two acres to a grape variety specifically for these uses. Some years in the making, “King of the North,” a pure, unfiltered grape juice brand, has been launched by Susan, who puts up about 1,200 quart jars a year. She mostly sells out her entire production right off the farm in one weekend in October — during The Meander, the annual art crawl along the Upper Minnesota River valley. Roisens are one of 40 stops.

Sue Roisen has launched her own brand of grape juice, King of The North.

Sue Roisen has launched her own brand of grape juice, King of The North.

Susan likes to cut “King of the North” with sparkling water and serve it as bubbly grape juice to the kids, while other buyers simply mix it with water to get just the right taste. One of her art crawl customers admitted to using “King of the North” as her favorite mixer in vodka cocktails. The Meander becomes a family affair: daughter Martha, a fiber artist, comes back to the farm from Portland, Ore., to offer clothing and table linens made using Shibori, a Japanese technique that combines pulled thread and fine stitching. Martha also sells these items out of the Yarnery in St. Paul. Online, Martha sells knitting patterns from her website, Kikoroo.com.

Aaron never made it back to the home wine grape operation in Dawson, though his folks continue to hope that some day he will. Aaron has become an award-winning vintner for Hosmer Winery, on the shores of Cayuga Lake, in the Finger Lakes region of New York state. There he is working with vinifera grape varieties (which originate in the Mediterranean zone) to produce a dry Riesling and a dry Rose. The Finger Lakes have a micro-climate out to a mile from shore, that is one growing zone more temperate than the surrounding region. Beyond that one mile shoreline zone, upstate New York grape growers work with the same Minnesota-pioneered varieties that Jon and Susan Roisen work with.

Grape varieties
Frontenac wine grapes have worked out well for the Roisens, as has Marquette — though the clusters are small, and would be much too labor intensive to pick by hand. The Roisens also tried Marchal Foch, but that had to be chalked up to experience after about five disappointing harvests.

Jon Roisten shows a grape vine bloom with its 'caps' -- the little buds that will become grapes.

Jon Roisten shows a grape vine bloom with its ‘caps’ — the little buds that will become grapes.

“It’s a fantastic grape and makes a great wine, but it just doesn’t make it through the Minnesota winters. It’s susceptible,” Roisen said.

The thought has crossed their minds, to launch a vineyard, but they came down on the ‘no’ side of the question considering the sparse population in Lac Qui Parle county. Though the New Ulm-St.Peter-Mankato region is still largely rural in character, there are 100,000 residents and lotsof touring visitors.

So Jon and Susan remain content to sell their grapes to Morgan Creek and Chankaska wineries, in New Ulm and St. Peter, respectively — a 120 miles trip in the semi each way.

The Roisens reached a good size for their fruit operation (10 acres) after eight years of adding an acre or two a year. They are about to write a new chapter in their family farm history.

“We haven’t done a major (wine grape) expansion in seven years,” Jon said. “University of Minnesota has just announced the name of a new white wine grape variety called Itasca, and there will be limited availability — tissue cultured plants only, which means little tiny pots with a small vine growing in it. It’s sensitive. You can’t plant them until the middle of June. I am 63 years old now, and I am going to do a two-acre expansion in 2018 of this variety. It is the hardiest variety they have introduced. It is really approaching levels of low acidity. It is an exciting variety.

“It could be like 300-bushel corn, to give you an idea. As far as hardiness, it would withstand the full vortex winter we had two years ago with only 10 percent bud death, whereas with all the other varieties, we had up to 40 percent bud death in some instances. This plant is amazing.”

Careful conservationists
To keep the corn, bean and grapes operation in good working order, Roisens are careful soil conservationists — as are their neighbors, says Jon. It’s true for their grapes, as much as their corn and beans. Jon bought a French-built vineyard composting machine that picks up the vine cuttings in the fall, up to four-inch branches and pulverizes them for mulch to feed the vines.

“It’s like a baler with a hammer mill on the back end. It can turn those four inch branches into tooth picks.”

Jon Roisten checks the progress of his vines, which will produce 'Frontenac' wine grapes.

Jon Roisten checks the progress of his vines, which will produce ‘Frontenac’ wine grapes.

Rather than wasting those nutrients, all the potash and phosphates bound up in that wood return their nutritional benefit to the grape vines. And conservation has been a principle in their row crop operation since Jon farmed with his dad.

“This year, I’d say a third of my beans are no-till,” Jon said. “It depends on the land, on the soil type. We do it where it’s needed. I farm quite a bit of land that is small fields. It’s hilly and rolling. We use shelter belts (of trees and shrubs), filter strips, and we plant along contours. We don’t have many square corners. Lots of point rows.”

Susan, a nurse by profession, has planted and combined their entire harvest some years (her Christmas present one year was the new combine!). She and Jon see precision agriculture as the future of land stewardship and conservation, and also keeping the farm operation in the black.

“With our planting in the coming year, we plan to use row shut offs (programmed into the planter using GPS) just for the saving of seed alone it will pay for itself in one year.”

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