For the past year, a group of conservationists has been inviting farmers to “Friendship Tours” along the Minnesota River and down to Lake Pepin on the Mississippi.
The idea is simple: Get the two sides to talk to each other, find some common ground and lay the groundwork for a working relationship.
But Patrick Moore, director of Clean Up the River Environment, which sponsors the program, admits it’s an uneasy alliance and mistrust is increasing as the science increasingly points to farm drainage as a major problem in the river.
“ We’re doing a canoe float with members of the Corn Board. It’s pushing them to the edge of their comfort zone,” Moore said of the farm-industry group. “And it’s pushing my people to the edge of their comfort zone. People on both sides are saying, ‘What the hell are you doing?’”
“ We at CURE have suspended judgment and are just listening to farmers. But tensions are ramping up. Farmers are saying, ‘You don’t give us credit for what we’ve done.’ We say fine, we’ll listen.”
The tours visit farmers who are using new types of farm drainage to slow the flow of water off the land and to hold back nutrients. But the controlled drainage systems are more costly to install and only work well on level land.
While he applauds those efforts, they account for a minuscule amount of land being drained.
“ There’s very small progress being made. There’s a lot of pattern- tiling going on, and that’s what society rewards farmers to do.
“Farmers have to feed the world. They’re going full-speed ahead, especially with the crop prices the way they are and with the way we subsidize farm production,” Moore said.
“It makes total economic sense to drain your farm fields.
Any rational human being would do the same thing. We have an ag system that has monocultures and encourages drainage. That’s just the way it is. We have to look at whether that’s what we want, and that’s where you get into the arguments and discussions.”
Moore hopes that technological improvements to managed drainage systems and changes in farm programs may help.
“It’s like the greening of Wal-Mart. Something comes along that puts a self-interest into it.
All that nitrogen going into the water is a waste. Capturing that waste and increasing profits is in farmers’ interests. How can they work with scientists and fix that issue?”
Until then, Moore said the two sides need to get to know each other.
“ We need the working relationship — the pitched battles don’t go anywhere.
“My board has 15 members.
They’re farmers, tree huggers, biologists and housewives. They want a way to have an intelligent conversation. The cultures in our valley, we don’t talk to each other.”