Stand on the banks of the Wabash River and you quickly get a sense of its beauty. Trees with green leaves that sparkle in the sunlight cluster tightly on the riverbank. Today might be the day you see a bullfrog, catfish or even a heron, if you’re lucky. It’s easy to see why the Wabash is the beloved state river of Indiana.
More than 209,000 acres of land empty into the Wabash, a part of the Big Pine watershed. And thanks to its rich, fertile soil, more than 80 percent of the land is devoted to agriculture. Finding a balance between farm land and clean river water means area farmers need tools and resources to use crop nutrients more efficiently to help reduce what ends up in the river. 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 US, Ceres Solutions, Field to Market: The Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, the Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) and The Nature Conservancy 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 percent.
“This is a great example of how we are teaming up with our partners to solve a problem we all share,” says Becky Kenow, Land O’Lakes sustainability director. “The watershed is important to all of us—especially those living near the Wabash in Indiana. And we are working cooperatively to make this project happen.”
Fortunately, working cooperatively is our thing.
A partnership forms
Like many partnerships, it all started over a cup of coffee. Last fall, The Nature Conservancy was looking for another partner to help with the Big Pine project; Ceres Solutions, Field to Market and CTIC were already on board.
Ceres Solutions, a Land O’Lakes member ag cooperative, has a strong area presence and influence. And the cooperative’s connection to Winfield US offers some of the best crop production expertise in the industry. With the project’s focus on agriculture, Land O’Lakes and our crop inputs business Winfield US were a logical choice.
After a couple cups of coffee, animated conversation and handshakes, we were ready to get to work.
Reaching farmers through their local cooperative
Ceres Solutions is a farmer-owned cooperative based in Crawfordsville, Indiana, 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, location manager for Ceres Solutions in Templeton, Indiana. “We have 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 watershed improvement for the 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 summer, Ceres Solutions agronomists and others on the project are helping farmers implement nutrient management plans as well as demonstrating and educating 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 US has an impressive track record of helping farmers be successful in the field, while also strengthening our commitment to environmental stewardship.
“WinField 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 US Innovation and Business Development director. “Ceres Solutions is a progressive co-op; they get why they need to be talking with their farmers about environmental impacts and how to help them.”
The Ceres Solutions team will use area WinField Answer Plot® locations—where farmers learn about new technology, insights and products to improve their yields—to raise awareness of the Big Pine project.
Winfield US agronomists also are working with Ceres Solutions employees to host a sustainability-focused Answer Plot® event for area farmers this summer. The event will center on planting cover crops, improved nutrient management practices and other things farmers can do to help improve the watershed’s water quality.
Setting a starting point
While tools, technology and techniques are important, farmers also need to prove they’re making progress. This requires them to have 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 that farmers can share with others.
“The Fieldprint Calculator helps farmers first understand where they are at by visualizing and assessing how efficiencies and environmental impacts change based on various management decisions,” says Betsy Hickman, Field to Market’s director of communications and membership. “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.”
For the Big Pine project, Winfield US and Ceres Solutions staff will use the Calculator to help area farmers determine their farm’s environmental footprint baselines and establish their own continuous improvement programs. This 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.
“By using the benchmarks provided and continuing to use the tool to track performance, farmers can ask themselves if they are going in the right direction and whether there is something they should dig deeper into,” says Betsy.
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. Not long ago, the Indian Creek watershed in neighboring Illinois was facing its own water challenges, similar to Big Pine. There, CTIC worked directly with farmers and established local citizen leadership to help improve water quality.
“Our hope is to replicate some of the success at Big Pine that we have experienced at Indian Creek,” 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 funding from the United Soybean Board and other partners, CTIC is working with the local soil and water conservation district to encourage farmers to enter their information into the Calculator. CTIC will present that information to agronomists from Ceres Solutions and other area cooperatives to discuss continuous improvement. The soil and water conservation district is working directly with farmers to facilitate data entry into the Calculator through a contract with CTIC.
The Nature Conservancy, which also works to protect land and water, hopes to do the same with its experience in coordinating and guiding similar projects. Their work includes bringing in partners whenever possible, providing science-based expertise, and monitoring and reporting progress. For them—for all of us—a strong partnership 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.”
Back at the Wabash River, farmers and families alike can rest a little easier knowing that somewhere upstream, a dedicated team is working together for a greater good. The good of the land, water, wildlife and the people who define the region.