By Sylvia Bachmann, photos by Dodd Demas
Paul Novotny, 51, farms nears Chatfield, Minn., pursuing a career he hadn’t even considered until about 15 years ago. While his grandfather came from a farm, Paul’s family was in the trucking business, and he also kept busy as a City Council member.
But in 2006, an opportunity arose that created a confluence of his business experience, his agricultural roots, and, eventually, his interest in preserving the water quality in his community.
Here Paul shares some of the steps in his journey toward creating a more sustainable agricultural landscape for a 21st-century world, including participating in a pilot study with innovative Continuous Living Cover crops that prevent soil erosion and nitrogen run-off into local water supplies.
Q. How did you become a farmer?
A. About 15 years ago, I started farming our family’s 300 or so acres. I gradually expanded and am now farming about 1,800 acres of corn, soybeans and alfalfa, using low-tillage practices.
Q. Corn, soybeans and alfalfa are proven commodities. Why grow anything else?
A. A few years ago, I learned about an innovative pilot program exploring the use of a continuous living cover crop called Kernza®. Continuous living cover crops are different from traditional commodity crops in that they are usually perennials, meaning they don’t have to be replanted every year. Because they stay in the field for a few years at a time, they help to slow erosion, improve soil health, enhance water availability and smother weeds. Also, growing a greater diversity of crops on a farm can reduce the risk of a total crop failure due to insects, diseases, or weather.
Q. What is Kernza, and how did the pilot program work?
A. Kernza is one of more than a dozen new perennial and winter annual cropping systems being developed by the University of Minnesota’s Forever Green Initiative. Kernza has a long, dense root system that can greatly reduce nitrate-nitrogen leaching and deliver other environmental benefits. It also is the first commercially-viable perennial grain in the U.S.
In the pilot program, I planted 25 acres of Kernza in the fall of 2017. (Winter crops, like Kernza, are planted in the fall and harvested the following summer, unlike corn and soybeans, which are planted in the spring and harvested in the fall.) Each year for three years, the program provided me with seed in year one, and financial and in-field technical support every year. Researchers also visited my field to monitor the crop, look for pest challenges, document weather conditions, test the soil and take a variety of other samples and measurements. At the end of each season, they purchased my crop and documented the total yield.
Q. What is “nitrogen leaching” and why is it a problem?
A. All crops need nitrogen to grow and produce good yields, and farmers have been applying nitrogen to fields in various forms since the 1850s. Without nitrogen fertilizers, we would lose up to one-third of the crops we rely on for human and animal food, fuels and other uses. Unfortunately, even when farmers calculate carefully and try to apply only as much nitrogen fertilizer as needed, sometimes there is excess nitrogen that does not get used by the plants and may run off into surface water (like streams and lakes) or leach through the soil to underground water supplies.
Across Minnesota and other agricultural states, nitrate levels in both surface and underground water supplies have been rising. This presents a danger to human health. Although nitrogen is a necessary nutrient for plants, high nitrate levels in people can harm the respiratory and reproductive system, kidney, spleen and thyroid in children and adults. It is particularly harmful to infants. To prevent human exposure to excess nitrates through drinking water, communities have had to develop expensive water treatment systems or drill new wells, which can cost a city $3-5 million dollars.
I farm in a drinking water supply management area (DWSMA), which means that some of my land surrounds a public water supply, and contamination of the surface or groundwater can affect the drinking water supply. As a farmer, resident, and member of Chatfield’s Public Works committee on water quality, I think it makes a lot more sense to prevent water contamination than to allow our water to become polluted and then to have to try to fix it.