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Warning: You’d better no-till – or else!Warning: You’d better no-till – or else!

Clean water regulations may one day affect how you farm.

January 23, 2017

3 Min Read
VOLUNTARY NO-TILL: Jeremy Wilson checks no-tilled soybeans on his farm. He no-tills in part because it protects water quality and improves soil health.

As a farm magazine editor, I’ve often heard that I should be warning you that you had better start no-tilling, filtering tile water runoff, planting cover crops, building new runoff-proof feedlots and doing other things to protect water quality, or the government will start passing regulations telling you how to farm.

I’ve kind of blown that off.

The Gulf of Mexico and its dead zone is a long way from the Dakotas, right?

The Mississippi River is Minnesota’s and Iowa’s concern.

And the Chesapeake Bay and California? Well, those are a half a continent away.

Lake Winnipeg, which the Canadian government says is being polluted by phosphorus runoff from the Red River Valley farms in North Dakota and Minnesota, is closer, but it’s across an international border. You’d think nutrients would need a passport.

Besides, now President Donald Trump’s anti-regulation team is in place. They’ll stop ag critics dead in their tracks, right?

Jeremy Wilson tells me I may be wrong.

Wilson, of Jamestown, N.D., no-tills. He has a very diverse crop rotation and uses lots of cover crops. His fields — some of which look more like minimum maintenance roads than cropland — produce some big soybean and corn yields.

Another reason Wilson has been so aggressive with no-till and cover crops is because he’s concerned about the government imposing soil health and water quality regulations. He has personally seen what regulated agriculture looks like. His wife, Sarah, comes from a farm in Maryland in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. He’s been back there a couple of times on vacation and holidays. Once, Sarah’s cousin asked him if he wanted to go a farm meeting.

Sure, said Jeremy, who is always up for learning how other people farm.

“It was a conservation meeting,” Jeremy recalls, “but not one farmer was on the program to tell what he was doing. There wasn’t a university or conservation official explaining any research. Instead, the meeting was all about filling out government forms and proving that you had complied with water regulations.”

Wilson believes Chesapeake Bay-style regulations will spread west. The only hope is that if farmers on the Plains adopt conservation practices and other measures to protect water quality voluntarily, then regulations won’t be necessary. A big plus is that no-till, cover crops and crop rotations — if managed properly — will reduce your costs, Wilson says.

Cannon Michael, manager of the 11,000-acre Bowles Farm, Los Banos, Calif., says the same thing. He grows tomatoes, melons, cantaloupe, watermelon, cotton and alfalfa about 120 miles east of San Francisco in the Imperial Valley. He’s had a seat on an Environmental Protection Agency committee where he saw federal regulations roll out across the country. Ninety percent of the time the regulation was already in place in California.

MORE REGULATION: Cannon Michael, manager of Bowles Farm, Los Banos, Calif., uses solar power to make the farm he manages more environmentally sustainable.

“Even if you’re in the Midwest and are not seeing an immediate threat, over time you will see a more regulated level of agriculture nationwide,” he said in an article published by our sister publication, Farm Futures.

“You want to be aware of what’s going on elsewhere and what the public perception is. California has a strong environmental lobby, and it gets people stirred up; sometimes those things trickle down to your community.”

So maybe I am wrong.

Consider yourself warned.

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