Update: Nutrient Stewardship In Indiana Requires Cool, Clean Collaboration

Fall Creek Watershed
More than 209,000 acres of land empty into the Wabash, a part of the Big Pine watershed. Thanks to its rich, fertile soil, more than 80% of the land is devoted to agriculture. Pictured is Fall Creek, a tributary to the Big Pine. Photo courtesy of Seth Harden, The Nature Conservancy.

Update: The application deadline for NCRS funding has been extended to March 17, 2017.

Green leaves sparkle in the sunlight. Trees cluster tightly on the bank. Today might be the day you see a bullfrog, catfish or even a heron, if you’re lucky. No matter which season, no matter which path lures you from the county road to the water’s edge, the Hoosier state boasts more than its share of natural beauty.

Finding a balance between working area farm land and protecting area resources means local farmers need tools and strategies to use crop nutrients more efficiently… and help in reducing what ends up in local waterways. It’s the kind of complex issue that commands knowledge from a variety of partners throughout the agriculture industry.

That’s why Land O’Lakes, Inc., Winfield United, Ceres Solutions, the Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) and The Nature Conservancy, among others, have teamed up to develop a Big Pine watershed management plan that lays out water quality goals and how to reach them over the next three years. One of the primary goals is to reduce the amount of phosphorus and sediment that flow into the watershed by more than 50%.

A Partnership Forms

Ceres Solutions, a Land O’Lakes member ag cooperative, has a strong area presence and experience serving customers in the watershed area. And the cooperative’s connection to Winfield United offers some of the best crop production expertise in the industry. Members of the Ceres Solutions team gathered key stakeholders… after several cups of coffee, animated conversation and handshakes, a partnership was formed.

Reaching Farmers Through Their Local Cooperative

For those who are not involved in agriculture, Ceres Solutions is a farmer-owned cooperative based in Crawfordsville, IN, that provides seed, nutrients, supplies, education and more to help farmers bring the best to their fields. For them, sustainability, or continuous improvement, in their offerings has always been a top priority.

“Ceres Solutions has had a passion for sustainability since Day One, and has worked hard to make it a key part of our business model,” says Tom Stein, (at left) location manager for Ceres Solutions in Templeton, IN. “We’ve always tried to foster a culture of environmental stewardship and sustainability, well before sustainability was even a talking point or a buzzword.”

Not surprisingly, when improvement at Big Pine was first discussed, Ceres Solutions quickly saw the value they could bring to the project.

“We took action on this issue because we saw this as an opportunity to help our customers — farmers — implement conservation practices to improve water quality outcomes for Big Pine Creek,” says Tom.

This past summer, Ceres Solutions agronomists and others on the project helped farmers implement nutrient management plans as well as demonstrated and educated them on practices that reduce soil erosion. For instance, farmers can use reduced or no-till systems, which allows them to grow crops without disturbing the soil. They can also plant cover crops on their land to protect the soil between growing seasons. Together, these approaches can help prevent nutrients and sediment from leaving the field where they can contaminate streams and rivers.

Teaching Through Technology And Tools

Farmers need the right tools and technologies to make these improvements. Winfield United, a partner of Ceres, has an impressive track record of helping farmers be successful in the field, while also strengthening their commitment to environmental stewardship.

“Our agronomists, sales people and key account managers are helping raise awareness about watershed issues and providing training opportunities for Ceres Solutions employees and farmers,” says Keith Newhouse, Winfield United Innovation and Business Development director. “Ceres Solutions is a progressive co-op; they get why they need to be talking with local farmers about environmental impacts and how to help them.”

The Ceres Solutions team uses WinField Answer Plot locations — where farmers learn about new technology, insights and products to improve their yields — to raise awareness of sustainability issues. Employees host workshops and grower events centered on planting cover crops, improving nutrient management practices and other techniques farmers can adopt to help improve the watershed’s water quality.

Setting A Starting Point

While tools, technology and techniques are important, farmers also want to see that they’re making progress. This requires an understanding of their starting point, the ability to track their performance and make comparisons against other farmers. That’s where Field to Market enters the picture.

In 2009, Field to Market, which helps address concerns raised by consumers and environmental groups about the sustainability of agriculture, introduced the Fieldprint Calculator. This tool helps farmers better understand how their production practices affect their farm’s overall environmental footprint. This information translates their ag sustainability performance into hard data.

“The Fieldprint Calculator helps farmers understand where they are. They can visualize and assess how efficiencies and environmental impacts change based on various management decisions,” says Betsy Hickman, Field to Market’s director of communications. “By comparing their performance against local, state and national benchmarks, farmers have the ability to document and demonstrate their conservation and stewardship, while also identifying opportunities for improvement.”

Adaptations might mean changing tillage practices, nutrient management techniques or improving soil health; things that can help improve a farm’s efficiency and increase its sustainability.

Replicating Success And Leading The way

For CTIC, a conservation organization dedicated to protecting land and water, the Big Pine project offers another chance to make a difference.

“Our hope is to replicate some of the success at Big Pine that we have experienced in nearby watershed projects,” says Chad Watts, CTIC project director. “If we can replicate that success, we can refine and duplicate the process to help other watersheds across the Corn Belt and beyond to protect water quality.”

With financial support from the United Soybean Board and other partners, CTIC is working with the local soil and water conservation district to en¬courage farmers to enter their information into the Calculator. The SWCD works directly with farmers to facilitate use of the Calculator’s capabilities. The Nature Conservancy, which also works to protect land and water, hopes to do the same. TNC’s work includes bringing partners together, providing science-based expertise, and monitoring and reporting progress. For them — for every stakeholder — collaboration is the bridge to success.

“Through this partnership in Big Pine, agricultural and conservation interests are coming together to help safeguard our waters and lands while empowering growers to meet the rising demand for food, fuel and fiber,” says Matt Williams, Indiana Director of Conservation Programs for The Nature Conservancy.

“This project will result in thousands of new acres of cover crops and nutrient management plans, which are tools that can help greatly reduce the amount of nutrients that leave farm fields and end up in our waterways.”

Today, those involved in the Big Pine project can rest a little easier. They know that the good works being done upstream contribute to the greater good now being seen downstream. And that’s good news for the land, water, wildlife and the people who call this region home.

Funding is Available

Join Ceres Solutions and leading industry organizations in this initiative to strike the perfect balance between stewardship and profitability on the acres that matter most to you. Funding is available. Countless professional resources are ready to serve you. Deadline to file funding applications: March 17, 2017. See your Ceres Solutions team or visit your NRCS office for details.

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