Watershed Leaders Network

Whitewater Watershed Farmer-Led Council

Southeast Minnesota | Whitewater River Watershed

Whitewater Farmer-Led Council is Catalyst for Minnesota’s Water Quality Certification Program

These farmers and landowners represent eight of the first sixteen farm operations certified in the Whitewater Watershed, covering 7,326 acres. Throughout the pilot of Minnesota’s Agricultural Certification Program and beyond, they led by example.

An engaged and active Whitewater Farmer-Led Council was one reason the watershed was selected as one of four pilot areas in the state to test Minnesota’s Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program (MAWQCP), also called “Ag Certainty”. During the three-year pilot phase, Farmer-Led Council members served on the local advisory committee, guiding the rollout of the program. Many members also participated in the program by seeking certifications for their farm operations and by encouraging their neighbors to do the same.

Ag Certainty is a voluntary program for farmers interested in assessing their operation and adopting practices that enhance water quality. The assessment process examines physical field characteristics; nutrient, tillage, pest and drainage management; and current conservation practices. Areas that need additional conservation or modifications in management are identified through the assessment. Technical and financial assistance is available and certified farmers are exempt from any new regulations for ten years.

Throughout the pilot phase, farmers and landowners in the Whitewater Watershed took the lead in Minnesota. By the end of the pilot in December 2015, 27 Whitewater farmers were certified. This is the highest participation rate of all the pilot areas and covers 18,748 acres of land managed in a manner that poses little risk to water quality.

Minnesota’s First Farmer-Led Council Persists, Increases Acres in Conservation Practice

The Whitewater River Watershed covers over 200,000 acres of primarily agricultural lands in the Driftless region of Southeast Minnesota. Upper portions of the watershed are heavily row-cropped; lower portions of the watershed have steep, wooded slopes. Here, agricultural fields tend to be smaller and include more livestock, pasture and hay. Dairy and beef are the major livestock types.

Although most of the Whitewater River Watershed is agricultural, the area is also one of the most economically important outdoor recreation and tourism destinations in Minnesota. The watershed boasts over 100 miles of trout streams and has two popular state parks. The Whitewater discharges into the Mississippi River at Weaver Bottoms, an important Mississippi River backwater and waterfowl staging area.

Patterned after the Hewitt Creek Model of Northeastern Iowa, the Whitewater Farmer-Led Council started in 2010 with funds available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. This Council is the first in the state of Minnesota. Performance–based agronomic indicators and incentives were used to encourage farmers to try various conservation practices on their land.

Once formally organized, the Whitewater Farmer-led Council made it their mission to protect and improve the waters of the Whitewater River Watershed through education, public awareness, innovation and the implementation of a wide variety of conservation practices. The Council recognizes that watershed improvements cannot use a cookie-cutter approach; each farm and farmer is different and the solution each uses will be different. The Council believes those who live in the watershed are best able to protect and improve water quality.

Since its start, Whitewater Farmer-Led Council has actively promoted conservation farming with farmers and non-farmers through conservation tours, workshops that promote soil health, and trips to learn what others are doing to improve watersheds. Farmer involvement led to selection of the Whitewater as a pilot in Minnesota’s Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program.