Changing the Landscape

Wildflowers. photo: CC BY-ND 2.0

Minnesota’s Working Lands Watershed Restoration Program

Federal law has mandated American refineries to mix increasing amounts of corn-based ethanol into gasoline since 2007. Ethanol is an alcohol that burns less carbon dioxide than refined petroleum products. Ethanol advocates have touted it as a tool to bringing down greenhouse gas emissions. However, the environmental impacts of the “corn boom” may be outweighing the benefits of the biofuel.

The drive to meet the ethanol mandate and cash in on high corn prices has led to a drastic reduction in land that is set aside for conservation. For example, five million acres of land set aside for conservation have vanished in the last seven years. Most of these acres were marginal farmland, near waters or wetlands, and now instead of filtering pollution “for free” they contribute to polluting our waters. Why? As in most cases, the financial concerns of the few trump the health and environmental concerns of the rest of us.

Since the mandate, landowners filled in wetlands and plowed prairies — releasing carbon dioxide that had been locked in the soil — to cash in on high corn prices. Billions of pounds of fertilizer have been sprayed onto the landscape to make it more economically productive, some of which seeped into drinking water. This has cost water rate payers millions of dollars to clean up and make it safe to drink again.

We have seen our rivers, lakes and streams contaminated to incentivize the supposedly cleaner alternative, ethanol. In Minnesota alone, more than 700,000 acres of land previously in conservation have been converted to mainly row crops, such as corn, and we are expected to lose another 300,000 acres in the next couple of years. The consequences of corn ethanol are so severe that many scientists now reject corn-based ethanol and consider it a bad environmental policy.

There is a solution that is actually good for our water, land, air, and rural economies; this alternative can still get us to the ethanol mandate as well: advanced cellulosic ethanol from perennial vegetative feedstock. While other states, like Iowa, are welcoming new biofuel facilities, those facilities use mostly corn stover — the stalks, leaves and stems left over after the corn is harvested. While this might seem like an efficient use of the “leftovers”, removing stover from fields leaves them barren for months at a time over the winter, resulting in fields that leach agricultural pollutants and lose soil to erosion. This is not the solution we are looking for.

In Minnesota, we want to take a different direction. We need to literally change the landscape from single crop corn fields, into fields of perennials that will benefit water quality, soil health, help clean up our air of excess carbon, as well as provide habitat for pollinators, birds, and other wildlife. A common, but expensive practice currently utilized to achieve this goal are programs like the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which pays a yearly rental payment in exchange for farmers removing environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and planting species that will improve environmental quality.

However, to move in the right direction on water quality by converting the needed acreage to perennials, this program would cost billions of dollars in Minnesota alone. Rather than pay farmers to take land out of production in the CRP program, we propose to provide a market-based incentive for farm operators to replace annual crops like corn and soybeans with perennial crops. These plants would be suitable for use as feedstock in advanced biofuel facilities, be an actual sustainable energy source (unlike corn ethanol), benefit water quality and save money filtering out pollutants from our drinking water sources, and on top of all of this, help reinvigorate rural economies.

In 2015, the legislature passed an innovative biofuels production incentive program. The program aims to incentivize a new, more sustainable biofuels industry in Minnesota by providing a state subsidy to refineries producing advanced biofuels. This incentive program is unique because it requires all participating refineries to source 50 percent of their biofuel feedstock from perennial or cover crops by the fifth year of production.

The 50 percent rule will balance corn stover harvest with perennial and cover crops that produce profitable fuels while protecting our air, soil, and water. However, few Minnesota farmers currently grow perennial or cover crops because there are not programs in place for insurance and markets. Meaning new, advanced refineries won't be built until there is a reliable and sufficient supply of feedstock. That's why we are working with our partners on legislation this session to address these obstacles and get a successful program initiated here in Minnesota.

Creating an incentive for farmers to grow perennial crops assures advanced biofuel refineries will have the feedstock to operate at a profit. In turn, the state incentive program ensures that local landowners can profitably plant the perennial crops their facilities need to meet the 50 percent goal. As a result, this program becomes a win-win-win for everyone.Farms can diversify their cropping systems to include perennial crops while maintaining profitability. Perennial crops become economically viable, incentivizing more living cover on the land. Finally, Minnesota's biofuels industry gets a jumpstart, helping Minnesota become a world leader in this field; our fuel mix gets cleaner, greener, and more sustainable, while significantly improving water quality using a market-based approach rather than regulation.

The Working Lands Watershed Restoration Program bill that passed in the 2016 legislative session includes $594,000 in funding for development of an in-depth feasibility study and program plan to implement the program in two pilot watersheds. The incentive program will establish payments for farmers that grow perennial crops and for processing facilities participating in the program. Moreover, it will prioritize the program in the areas with the worst water quality problems and where a transition to perennial crops will have the most benefits.

We need to make this a priority and create the incentives to literally change the landscapes of Minnesota. This means fewer single crop corn fields and more fields of perennials. This program can help achieve the state's long-term renewable fuel and water-quality goals simultaneously, while also creating more habitat, healthier soils, and climate resiliency throughout the state, and reinvigorate Minnesota’s rural communities and economies in a sustainable way.