Location: St. Paul, MN
9:00 am - Welcome and Introductions
Brad Redlin began the meeting welcoming the committee and beginning introductions.
Brad Redlin outlined the agenda for the day.
Doug Albin asked if there are people that need to leave early if there are any items that need to be addressed upfront. Redlin responded that anyone can bring up any item at any time.
Brad showed the committee's "rules of the road" as a reminder.
9:30 am - Assessment Tool
Peter Gillitzer, Assessment and Research Coordinator for the program, outlined the evaluation of the MAWQCP Assessment Tool. The assessment tool process has been run through independent researchers including mathematicians and engineers, the MAWQCP technical committee including scientists from University of Minnesota, state agencies, and NRCS, and this advisory committee. Peter is presenting to this group to get some additional recommendations and comments. Then all the recommendations will be evaluated to see what changes should be made. These changes will all be made at once when developing the online tool.
The independent study was done through Stearns County SWCD, Keiser and Associates, and Sense AI, Inc. We wanted them to look at it purely from a scientific perspective. Some of the recommendations are very useful and we should continue to look at them, some of them we’ve done already, some of them may not be the most efficient or practical.
There are 10-12 themes that came out of the evaluation that Peter discussed with this committee.
Gillitzer explained to the committee that the goal of this tool is to assess risk. It is not intended to be an edge-of-field predictive model. It doesn’t act alone in a bubble. It is one step three. Conservation professionals are applying the tool so that it makes sense and what is in the field is not missed or not captured in the index. The goal is to have the tool operate effectively, but it does not operate alone.
One way of looking at the assessment tool is that it is an educational tool to guide the conversation between a conservation professional and a farmer. They are going through all of the aspects of their operation to see how they interrelate and help them manage risk around water quality.
The goal of this analysis was to find out if the tool incentivizes agricultural practices that reduce the risk to water quality. There were two parts:
A committee member asked what the value system for the assessment tool was. Gillitzer answered that it had to be identified if we’re trying to find a systems approach, or are we trying to identify pollutants of concern. He continued to explain that the idea is to evaluate water quality risk. The program is trying to take a systems approach and to implement practices that on an average year will protect water quality. Redlin agreed that we told these evaluators to assess the tool from any perspective and came up with things that we had not even applied to this tool as of yet. Risk assessment, identify risks, mitigate risks has been the value system for the program.
The sensitivity analysis was based on all of our runs, certified farms, and farms going through the process. This analysis was done for all 16 parameters in the tool. The mean, median and range for each can be presented. The most influential score change is for conservation practice question changing the score plus or minus 2 points. The next most influential score is drainage. It can move the score up or down 1.5.
An advisory committee member asked why there was such a range in the drainage questions and if there is a difference between old tiling systems and new systems. Gillitzer responded that it depends on the field. If it is a simple system, drainage could have a big influence. If it is a much more complex system with a lot of conservation practices the drainage influence gets diluted in the scoring.
An advisory committee member asked what parameters included soil in the assessment tool. Gillitzer responded that the physical characteristics of the field included parameters like k-factor, hydrologic soil group and slope.
A committee member mentioned that this tool has worked for the 31 farms that have been certified and questioned if there was something about it that was not working for other farms. Gillitzer said that broadly, conservation practices have been important to get certified, especially practices that are addressing a specific resource concern. He added that even early adopters have had to do something to attain certification status. Another committee member followed up that it is great that additional practices were required, but asked if it was something the program pointed out, or if it was something those farmers had wanted to do, but did not have access to the funding. Gillitzer responded that the program has seen both scenarios.
A committee member asked if the is tool analysis included the national agricultural BMP database that is being developed similar to the national stormwater BMP database. Gillitzer said that no, that had not been included in the analysis, but that he would follow up.
Findings and Observations
1. There are a lot of data housekeeping items that are being built into the online tool. This will allow for better data entry and comparison from year to year.
2. Conservation practices have a big influence on the final score. Most farms without conservation practices are not getting certified. This helps us know if the bar for certification has been set high enough.
A committee member asked if the 8.5 score was appropriate for certification eligibility. Gillitzer said that he thinks the bar is set appropriately and that is what the evaluation tells us. There will always be an outlier with some exemplary management level, but the majority of people need to do something better.
3. Conservation practice adjustments range from 35%-45%. The recommendation is saying that the scoring should look past total suspended solids (TSS) number and apply numbers associated with soluble pollutants.
A committee member suggested that that weight should be given depending on the pollutants going into the receiving water.
4. There was a recommendation to increase the emphasis on nutrient management within the equation.
A committee member said that slow release fertilizers should be incorporated in to the scoring.
After more discussion, Gillitzer mentioned that the other recommendation was to create a lower threshold, a scoring floor, so a farmer can’t move through the rest of the system without an acceptable level of nutrient management and become certification eligible.
A committee member asked Dennis Fuchs, one of the pilot coordinators, if people come in and cannot qualify for certification, is there anything built in for aspiring producers? Dennis responded that most of them want to move to a better score, even though they are not certification eligible yet. They have had a couple farmers come in with feedlots that need to be fixed, but they are nearing retirement so they are not going to fix them. But they are looking at doing some additional things on their cropland even though they cannot get certified.
5. Pest management is an area where producers are scoring quite high. The pest management influence on the score is very high. The recommendation is to adjust the scoring so that more of a spectrum can be covered, and then weigh it so that it can give appropriate influence compared to the nutrient management section.
A committee member commented that the weight of the pesticide score should be reduced because by following the labels and the law applicators should be protecting water quality concerns.
An advisory committee member asked why using rotations and secondary modes of action was scored higher since it does not have an effect on water quality. Gillitzer responded that it is a long-term approach to being proactive so that chemistry that has a negative impact on water quality does not need to be used in the future.
6. Drainage is the second highest influence in the assessment tool score. Most farm fields are seeing negative adjustment to their scores for drainage.
A committee member asked if this scoring would change in the future using new data that shows that tiling impacts sediment and phosphorous in a beneficial way and nitrogen in a negative way. Gillitzer responded that not all tile has a negative or positive impact on water quality and that this principle should be integrated into the assessment tool using controlled experiments—not necessarily the Discovery Farms data that are just observational studies.
7. Soil tests for organic matter should be used rather than NRCS data. Most certifiers are using organic matter tests.
A committee member asked if producers using precision ag were getting some advantage in the score. Gillitzer responded that it will better inform the score and fields may be divided to accommodate for changes in soil types. There was discussion about how to incorporate precision ag into the assessment.
8. The recommendation to give additional credit to producers who are implementing a rotation came from the program technical committee. The plan is to continue doing a crop-by-crop evaluation of the risks but add a perennial boost to the score.
A committee member commented that there should be some residue management criteria included because not all third crops are equally protective of water quality. Gillitzer commented that NRCS has some good guidelines on crop residue and they will be incorporated.
9. The recommendation for tillage management is to refine the rating system to put more definition between the categories with an emphasis on soil health. Tillage is the fourth most influential factor in the assessment process.
12:00 pm - Lunch
During lunch Peter Gillitzer went through the beta version of the online tool with the committee.
1:00 pm - Update from Matthew Wohlman
Matthew Wohlman, the assistant commissioner of the Department of Agriculture gave an update to the advisory committee members. He talked about his recent presentation at the National Association of Conservation Districts conference. He discussed the budget request in to the legislature combined with the recent Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) award the program received. He also updated the committee on the certified farms he has visited over the last year.
1:40 pm - RCPP Discussion
Brad Redlin updated the committee on the status of the budget including the RCPP proposal. There was some discussion about funding for clean water research. Wohlman responded that we have the Clean Water Fund technical research and assistance programs that are looking at BMPs as a whole. This funding supports what is going on in our pilot agreements as well. Committee members wanted to make sure that the research funds and efforts were coordinated. Redlin added that we do have a line in our budget for research, but most of that has gone into research on the assessment tool. There will not be an entire research wing of this program; research efforts will be coordinated across the agencies and other entities.
Redlin continued discussing the RCPP and the structure that the proposal took for the program. Through the pilots it was found that SWCDs are the structure to use in delivering the program. Program staff is currently working with MASWCD and BWSR to identify the best approach for expanding regionally. They recommended using the Technical Service Areas (TSAs)
2:00 pm - KAP Survey
Marcie McLaughlin presented on the preliminary knowledge attitudes and practices (KAP) survey results. The local advisory committees in each pilot assisted in putting together the surveys. They identified what they already knew and what they wanted to know. Questions were adapted to local conditions of the pilots. The preliminary results were presented for each of the pilots.
2:30 pm - Program Evaluation Discussion
Brad Redlin led a discussion about how the program compares to similar programs.
There were comments from committee members about who actually delivers the certification, and options for TSPs, CCAs, and other professionals to be certifiers. Redlin responded that within the RCPP proposal, there is a position to fund TSPs and program staff looks for input on how to best roll this out with dealers and crop consultants.
A committee member brought up working with ag and food businesses for environmental markets and trading. Redlin responded that there has not been any more specific interest. Another committee member added that Environmental Initiative is working to gather more interested companies.
A committee member asked about outcomes reporting and if the program is using E-link. The committee member was interested in getting pollution reduction numbers as well as number of farms, acres and practices. McLaughlin responded that the program does use E-link to track clean water funds sent to pilots, so it could be used as the program expands. Redlin added that it might be good to coordinate with the NRCS CEAP process.
4:00 pm - Adjourn