Minnesota Farmers Leading Phosphorous Fight

Phosphorus is a naturally-occurring nutrient that is essential for plant life. But, it can be bad for our waterways by causing algal blooms which results in depleted oxygen in the water, which in turn harms plants and wildlife and can disrupt the ecosystem.

Maintaining clean and healthy waterways is a top priority for the sugar industry, which is why the farmers of the Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative (SMBSC) have taken action to help stamp out the effects of phosphorus.

And their efforts have garnered praise from conservationists and regulators alike.

In 1999, the SMBSC looked to increase the production capabilities of their factory in Renville, Minnesota, approximately 100 miles west of Minneapolis. Because sugar beets are approximately 75 percent water, processing more than 2 million tons of sugar beets a season requires the successful management of more than a million gallons of water a day. A new wastewater treatment plant was necessary.

In an effort to minimize phosphorus levels in the Minnesota River Basin, SMBSC worked in conjunction with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency during the permitting process to develop a plan to offset potential discharges from their wastewater treatment plant.

For every pound of possible phosphorus released, SMBSC would ensure that 2.6 pounds of nonpoint source pollution does not enter the waterways.

Unlike point source pollution, where contaminants enter the water at an identifiable point such as a factory, nonpoint source pollution occurs when rain runoff or drainage sweeps pollutants into water sources.

This type of pollution is responsible for most of the excess phosphorus found in Minnesota waterways. In fact, a 2004 study prepared for the Minnesota State Legislature found that “nonpoint sources of phosphorus account for 69 percent of the phosphorus entering Minnesota surface waters.” And of that amount, an estimated 25 percent of phosphorus came from cropland runoff.

“As farmers, we have a sincere respect for the resources that have been gifted to us,” says Kyle Petersen, chairman of the board for SMBSC. “We are committed to preserving a sustainable and healthy natural environment and knew that we had to take action to defend our waterways.”

As part of that commitment, SMBSC created incentives for farmers and cattle ranchers to reduce phosphorus pollution from nonpoint sources.

SMBSC worked with their more than 500 farmer shareholders to encourage the use of cover crops to minimize soil erosion caused by wind or rainfall and greatly reduce cropland runoff.

More than 75 percent of SMBSC growers now use a cover crop on their sugar beet fields. Not only are they taking strides to protect the environment, but SMBSC growers have found that cover crops protect the emerging beet plants and improve soil health, leading to an increased yield.

The cooperative has also worked with a local cattle company to stabilize a streambank and put into place measures to restrict cattle from entering the water and reduce pollution.

Not content to simply meet their goals, SMBSC has remained well below the phosphorus release limit established by their permit while exceeding their stated phosphorus reduction commitment.

SMBSC has been credited with preventing more than twice as much phosphorus from entering Minnesota surface waters as required by their permit. In total, that’s a reduction of more than 219,000 pounds of phosphorus.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency estimates that between 2000 and 2014, Minnesota reduced phosphorus in the Mississippi River Basin by 33 percent, with 8 percent being attributed to cropland best management practices.

We are proud to be leading the fight against nutrient pollution in the Minnesota River Basin,” says Steven Domm, President and CEO of SMBSC. “We work and live in this community and realize that preserving it for future generations is a shared responsibility.

These efforts have rightly won accolades from environmental groups and have been highlighted as an example of best practices for other facilities to follow.

Clean Up the River Environment (CURE) – a Minnesota non-profit dedicated to protecting the Upper Minnesota River Watershed – awarded SMBSC with CURE’s first “good business award” for their work in reducing pollutants. And the USDA Office of the Chief Economist has highlighted SMBSC’s efforts in a “Farm of the Future” profile.

SMBSC continues to be on the forefront of sustainable nutrient management practices. Through their work to raise awareness of the issues surrounding phosphorus pollution, their efforts to maintain healthy waterways will continue to have big impacts in Minnesota and beyond.

Florida Sugar Producers Give a Hoot About Pest Control

The sugarcane fields of south Florida are home to more than just high-quality sugar.

The tall stalks provide a habitat to countless creatures that call the region home. Birds, reptiles, and small mammals all live in the farm fields, sharing their habitat with humans that grow cane.

It’s been like this since sugarcane was commercially cultivated in the region nearly a century ago.

And farmers in the area, by nature, love the environment and the animals it sustains. The soil, sun and rain in Florida bring to life the crops they raise. Protecting that environment is just as important to sugarcane farmers as the crop that flourishes in Florida.

But some of the critters that live among the stalks can cause problems for sustainable and efficient cane harvesting. Rats and mice chew on the stalks, often damaging a significant percentage of the crop.

That means farmers had to spend time and energy working to protect their crops from the pests. In the past, they’ve used the same methods you might use at home to rid your property of rodents. But those methods were expensive and, in some cases, inefficient. Traditional applications used to combat rodents required multiple treatments and would dissolve and become ineffective with rain.

Enter the barn owl – and a widespread local sustainable farming practice that got its start from a humble high school science fair project back in 1994.

As that project noted, barn owls native to the Florida sugar area love to nest in tight spaces, like the rafters and eves of barns. They also eat mice – by the thousands. And the fact that a pair of owls were shown to eat as many as 5,000 rodents in a year was music to the sugarcane farmers’ ears.

Dr. Richard Raid, of the University of Florida, took that science fair project and expanded it to what has become a great method for controlling rodents in cane fields. His work even won him a special achievement award from the World Owl Hall of Fame in 2019.

Since Dr. Raid expanded upon the local science project, thousands of local students have built barn owl boxes and installed them in sugarcane fields.

The first-generation wooden boxes have been replaced with plastic boxes because bees also found them to be a good home. The bees disturbed the owls and presented a danger for workers. The bees don’t seem to like the plastic boxes, but the owls do.

Florida Crystals Corporation and the independent growers in the area are big believers in the project, using barn owl boxes in most of their fields.

“We basically upgraded from wooden bird houses to sturdier condos,” says Marianne Martinez, the company’s vice president of corporate communications.

Moramay Naranjo, principal scientist, is over the project at Florida Crystals.

The most recent owl census showed of the 126 boxes, 92 of those currently contain nesting owls. Naranjo is measuring the ability of the owls to control rodents and has plans to expand.

Naranjo says using the owls is a win-win for farmers and the environment.

“I’m so excited,” she says. “I am helping those families of owls. They have a cute and unique face. I feel so proud because we are helping everything – the ecosystem, the environment and at the same time we are protecting our farms.”

And that is what sustainability is all about.

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