BRAINERD, Minn. — As both DFLers and Republicans often agree, water is the lifeblood of the Mississippi watershed. Where lawmakers differ is how to go about protecting and preserving that vital natural resource.

During the 2021 legislative session, activists pushed a pair of ambitious soil health initiatives. One, incorporated into the environmental omnibus bill and before the Minnesota House’s Environmental Committee; the second as a potential provision of the Legacy Committee in the Minnesota Senate.

These initiatives are sweeping, with the goal to invest millions of dollars in soil health programs, sustainable farming practices, incentives for farmers to adopt environmentally friendly methods, and to sequester carbon in the soil. In effect, activists with the Land Stewardship Project said, it’s a push to invest in clean water, farmer resiliency, sustainable agriculture and climate change mitigation. Land Stewardship Project advocates noted the initiative is the product of thousands of Minnesotans and incorporates the input of hundreds of farmers in the state.

Goals were incorporated into the initiative, such as stipulations that 50% of farmers would be subject to soil health practices by 2030, 100% of farmers by 2035, and 100% of farm acres by 2040.

“There are landmark legislation opportunities here to get really sustainable land and agricultural policies in place and support for farmers to transition to sustainable methods in terms of agriculture right now,” said Jennifer Jacquot-DeVries, a Brainerd-based activist and writer. “When farmers use more traditional corporate monocultural practices, we deplete our soil. There's a risk to water quality if farmers aren't protecting that soil, if they’re not using mechanisms and strategies to prevent runoff.”

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Amanda Koehler, Land Stewardship Project policy organizer for soil health and climate, noted these proposals would represent a partnership between state government and farmers that benefits both sides, as well as the environment as a whole. Farming can be an exhaustive, costly venture as it is, she added, so it should be the state and the federal government’s role to provide grants, subsidies, loans and other forms of financial assistance so going greener is also profitable for the stewards of the land.

“There's so many benefits to soil healthy farming,” Koehler said. “Obviously water quality is one of them. It's probably one of the biggest ones, but there's also building resiliency on the landscape from climate change and helping farmers really make a living and be able to sustain themselves economically as well.”

Passage of these initiatives into law, at least during this session, has been something of a mixed bag. Koehler noted the Minnesota Senate incorporated provisions that set aside about $4 million to boost cover crop production — or certain crops like wheat and sorghum that naturally prevent runoff — while $7 million intended to fund soil health programs didn’t receive a hearing. Other provisions, such as establishing a goal of having 50% of farmers using soil healthy practices by 2030, are still up for deliberation.

“So it’s some stepping stones, but not everything that we wanted,” said Koehler, who noted there’s hopes for more progress in the future. “We are hoping that they'll do this. If we don't pass this program, we won't be eligible to get federal funding dollars added to that pot. We think it's really, really important to pass it this year as the federal government has really indicated that they're ready to help states who have this infrastructure in place.”

State Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point — a prominent voice on environmental committees in the Minnesota Senate and regarded as a key voice by Land Stewardship Project activists — said lawmakers decided to pass on provisions, particularly $7 million for soil health programs, because they were costly and redundant. The state’s soil and water conservation districts already address many of these issues, she noted, and the proposal would syphon funds from them.

“I think their lobbyists have done a fabulous job of portraying this program, but actually what it does is steal $11 million for the soil and water conservation districts," Ruud said. "They are the boots on the ground that implement all the Clean Water Council's projects and to take $11 million out of their funding is irresponsible.

“That wasn't supported in the Senate and it had very little support in the House. It was kind of a cockamamie funding source and we're just not interested in doing that.”