Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program
Advisory Committee Meeting Notes
September 29-30, 2014
Middle Sauk River Pilot Area
Discuss field staff and program operations
Discuss certifier accreditation
Update from each pilot area
Tour the Middle Sauk River pilot watershed
Monday, September 29, 2014
Quality Inn, St. Cloud MN
1:30 pm - Welcome and Introductions
Brad Redlin, MAWQCP Program Manager welcomed committee members and other meeting attendees. He explained the quarterly meeting schedule along with the proposed meeting themes to committee members. He reviewed the agenda for today.
2:00 pm - Program Operations
Bill Fitzgerald, MAWQP Field Operations and Training Coordinator presented how the program is operates in the field. Bill reviewed the Committee’s program operations recommendations. The MAWQCP field staff met on September 4th to coordinate certification staff. The first certifying agents were designated by the commissioner and are aware of data privacy information as well as conflict of interest requirements.
A committee member asked how someone becomes a certified Technical Service Provider (TSP). Fitzgerald responded that a person seeking TSP status needs to register with a local office and take a conservation planning course. In 2015 this week-long course will be held in Minnesota. Don Baloun added that there is a six module class, and that some of the modules are provided online.
Another committee member asked how many TSPs are in Minnesota. Don Baloun responded that there are approximately 350. There are many different kinds in forestry, nutrient management, etc.
Fitzgerald continued to present the certification process.
One lesson learned from the pilots is that the application form needs to be in front of producers at the outset so they know what is expected. By signing the application the producer is eligible for EQIP Certainty funds. This is a formal commitment they are pursuing certification. If the producer is not in compliance there is an opportunity to work toward achieving compliance during the certification process.
A committee member commented that there are a lot of questions regarding the actual enforcement of the laws and rules on the application form and wondered how those questions were being addressed in trainings with the certifiers.
Brad Redlin responded that the certifier sits down with the producer. If there are questions about compliance or any of the questions on the application form, the producer is put into contact with the respective local official. Technical and financial assistance is available to get the producer into compliance.
Fitzgerald continued to present to the group how the assessment process takes place in the field.
A committee member questioned if there was a field verification requirement. Fitzgerald responded that yes, each field will be verified.
Another committee member commented that the WQI Ag is also being used by Field-to-Market and questioned if there was communication regarding the changes to the index. Redlin responded that there is no formal communication between the programs. MAWQCP has been working closely with Harbans Lal, the scientist who developed the WQI Ag. The changes MAWQCP made is specific to Minnesota and anyone can have that information. Field- to-Market is working on more of a national scale.
Fitzgerald continued that technical and financial assistance has been provided to most of the producers that have been certified. These funds can come in different forms such as EQIP dedicated funds, Clean Water Fund dollars provided to pilots, CRP, State Cost-Share, BMP Loan Program, etc. The goal is to put these producers into contact with someone who can help. The need for technical assistance does not delay certification. It can take nine months to go through a contract; we are able to certify producers contingent on following through with commitments. These producers will be flagged with dates to ensure that the practice does get installed.
A committee member asked if there is variation in spending across the four pilots. Fitzgerald responded that yes, there are large differences; however, in general terms, it is difficult to use EQIP funds in flat landscapes.
After meeting all certification requirements, certifiers submit data to the state office and Peter Gillitzer and Bill Fitzgerald review all of their work. Peter and Bill are also doing all field verifications at this point. The field staff has been good about asking questions and bringing forward issues throughout the pilot process.
If producers have commitments to implementing practices, they will be tracked and verified. Sometime later after the certification a formal verification needs to take place. At this point the goal is by the fourth year of certification to do a 10% spot check. Certifiers will also be spot checked. These policies will be addressed in rule writing.
A committee member asked if a complaint procedure has been established. Redlin responded that a formal process is defined in the producer contract. At this point there is not a formal whistle blower policy. If that should happen, an investigation would take place. The committee member commented that it would be best to have the procedures in place and never use them rather than not be prepared.
The process for recertification is provided for in the contract language. Certified producers can recertify but must meet all laws and rules that exist at that time.
Fitzgerald continued to present findings from the operations implementation of the pilot. Outcomes to date include 11 certified producers that cover 3,902 acres. 117 operations are in progress which accounts for a total of 5% of producers in the watershed areas. There have been 2712 hours of water quality education provided with about 16 hours of time invested for each certification.
A committee member questioned what the program goal is regarding number of applicants vs. number of farms that become certified. Redlin responded that the approach is that anyone who applies should get certified. The goal is 100% certified, but some people are ultimately uninterested. The committee member asked if those metrics were all tracked and was told that yes, they are.
Another committee member asked if there is a goal to determine success. Is 5% of the watershed successful? Fitzgerald responded that pilots have set some goals. Redlin added that the pilots have defined how success will be determined locally, however we are hoping to reach about 25% of people in the pilots.
A committee member asked how the program defines an operation. Redlin responded that the producer gets to determine which operation they are going to certify. It can be any entity, but all of that entity needs to be certified.
A committee member asked what constitutes hours of water quality education. Fitzgerald responded that this is time the certifier spends with the producer working through the assessment process and suggesting additional conservation practices.
Fitzgerald presented two case studies of the certification of two farms. The main take away from the case studies is that having one dedicated staff person working on certifications in an area is most effective. There are a lot of applications sitting on desks and part time certifiers have not been able to achieve the level of conservation planning that full-time staff have.
3:00 pm - Pilot Project Updates
Dennis Fuchs, Middle Sauk
Two producers have achieved certification but have not signed the contract because of the liability language. This is something we should reevaluate.
Bruce Albright, Whiskey Creek
The Whiskey Creek KAP Survey is in and preliminary results will be available in December. The Clean Water Council toured the Buffalo-Red River Watershed District and the Certification Program was presented. Bruce will also be presenting at the Minnesota Association of Watershed Districts Annual Conference. There are three certified producers in Whiskey Creek and should have three more before the end of the year.
Linda Meschke, Elm Creek
A handout was presented to the committee outlining each assessment done for each producer. A committee member asked if these numbers were based on information provided by farmers or actual site verification. Meschke responded that it is a combination of both. Some of the information is also provided by crop consultants. Meschke reported that three producers have 100% of their operation ready, but may not get certified. A committee member asked what is causing the hesitation and Meschke responded their septic systems and open tile intake.
Sheila Harmes, Whitewater River
The Whitewater KAP study is ready to be sent to producers. To date there are two certified farms in the pilot. There has been an increased interest since the press coverage of the first farm.
The Whitewater River is currently in the middle of the WRAPS process, and this program is being tied to the strategies that are developed with the WRAPS. There is an upcoming Citizen’s Summit on November 12 that will engage local people in the WRAPS process, and MAWQCP will be included.
A committee member asked about the state land in this watershed. Harmes responded that the DNR wants their renters to operate under certification requirements.
3:30 pm - Responsible Crop Certificate
Greg Bohrer of Environmental Initiative and Paul Helgeson of GNP Companies presented to the committee their new Responsible Crop Certificate program. This program is piloting a market-based approach to address consumer concerns. It is a credit system in which companies can pay producers who meet an environmental standard to offset their environmental impact.
A committee member asked to explain how this differs from Field-to-Market. Helgeson responded that Field-to –Market ranks producers and aggregates the data. They don’t have a market side that connects environmental performance.
A committee member asked if all the commodities get mixed together are consumers really getting what they’re paying for. Another member added that there are concerns about greenwashing. Helgeson explained the offset system.
A committee member asked who runs the offset market. Bohrer responded that it is still being built.
A committee member asked how much GNP’s brand growth relies on this. Helgeson responded that it is not a primary purchasing attribute, but it is something that reinforces the brand for consumers.
4:30 pm - Advisory Committee Feedback
A committee member raised concern that the meeting reached the time to adjourn and there had been no advisory committee discussion about key issues in the program. The member said that the committee has been an audience thus far in the second term and wondered how MDA was going to take recommendations. The suggestion was made to provide much more material in advance so that committee members were able to come with comments. Another member suggested that questions should be sent out to committee members following the meeting to respond with feedback.
A committee member raised concerns about how this program keeps up with science and regulations. The pollinator problem does not seem to be addressed at all. Another issue that is not addressed is the registration of 2, 4D for use with resistant corn and soybeans.
A committee member asked if the questions raised during the day are considered feedback. Redlin responded that they are all being recorded for MAWQCP staff to address.
A committee member asked how water quality improvements are accounted for in the assessment tool. Redlin responded that the next meeting will be a presentation of the evaluation being done on the assessment tool.
A committee member referenced Harmes’ presentation regarding the WRAPS process and would like more information about how this program interfaces with that process.
There was discussion among the committee members regarding the cost of moving a farmer up to certification standards. How much does it cost? What funding sources are used? How does this get us closer to meeting water quality goals? A committee member asked if these metrics were being tracked and MAWQCP staff responded that they are tracking all of this.
A committee member commented on the need for local staff capacity to operate a program like this.
A committee member commented that the involvement of crop consultants in this program could be valuable, but the details will have to be worked out to provide the right incentive.
A committee member requested that guests from other sustainability companies be brought in to speak to the committee.
5:00 pm - Adjourn