WDAY: The News Leader

Published August 03, 2009, 07:29 AM

North Dakota farmers get help going green

DAZEY, N.D. (AP) — For all his 53 years, Kim Amann has lived on the family beef cattle ranch on the rolling hills above Baldhill Creek here.

By: JON KNUTSON, Associated Press

DAZEY, N.D. (AP) — For all his 53 years, Kim Amann has lived on the family beef cattle ranch on the rolling hills above Baldhill Creek here.

For the past two years, he's been part of a little-known program that studies how farms and ranches affect the environment.

What's learned in the Discovery Farms program could shape future environmental regulations in North Dakota.

"I'm hoping this will find better ways of doing things. Not just for me, but for other (ranchers), too," Amann said.

Discovery Farms producers work voluntarily with researchers and regulators to learn more about how the environment is impacted by various farming practices.

"The end result, hopefully, will be some innovative thought," said Greg Sandness, a North Dakota Department of Health official involved with the program.

"We want to work with producers and come up with good ideas," he said.

North Dakota and Wisconsin are the only states to have the program, though there are efforts to establish it in Minnesota and Arkansas.

The North Dakota project is monitoring water runoff at three locations. Two are livestock operations, and the third involves tile-drained fields. Special equipment has been installed at all three sites to measure water quality and quantity.

The three farms are expected to remain in the program for at least five years.

Discovery Farms stresses the importance of maintaining farm profitability while also minimizing environmental impacts, said Ron Wiederholt, a North Dakota State University nutrient management specialist who's spearheading the program in the state.

Farmers aren't compensated for participating, nor are they penalized or punished if problems are found.

North Dakota's program operates much like the one in Wisconsin, which was launched in 2001.

University and Extension Service officials in Wisconsin proposed the concept after exploring farm-based research efforts in the Netherlands. Today, the program is governed by a number of Wisconsin farm organizations. Eight Wisconsin farms are participating.

Dennis Frame, a University of Wisconsin Extension Service farm educator and director of the state's Discovery Farms program, said farmers generally have a strong commitment to doing the right thing environmentally.

"People across the country sometimes tell me that farmers don't care about the environment. The exact opposite is true," he said.

When farmers participating in the program learn of a problem in their operation, they correct it immediately, he said.

Frame said he has mixed emotions about that. As a scientist who would prefer to study the problem carefully, he's disappointed. As an extension service educator who works with farmers, he's proud.

Staff members of the North Dakota Department of Health heard about the Wisconsin program and thought it might be useful in North Dakota. Sandness contacted Wiederholt, who worked in Wisconsin before coming to North Dakota.

Wiederholt, knowledgeable about the Wisconsin program, was enthusiastic about expanding it to North Dakota.

Two volunteer farms were selected for the program in 2007. The Amann ranch is one. Doyle and Patsy Johannes of Underwood have the other. Testing equipment on the two farms measures water runoff from feedlots.

A third farm, the Kent and Sandy Bartholomay operation near Embden, was added last year. Equipment installed there measures runoff from tile-drained fields.

Though tile drainage is rare in this area, a growing number of farmers are interested in it, Wiederholt said. That makes it important to gather more data on runoff from tile-drained fields, he said.

The North Dakota project is a joint effort of the three participating farms, the state Health Department, the state Water Commission, North Dakota State University and the U.S. Geological Survey, which provides and operates monitoring equipment. The project is funded with grant money from the Environmental Protection Agency.

The program is not soliciting applications from other farms, Wiederholt said.