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Protecting a trout stream requires continued vigilance

By Janet Kubat Willette

Date Modified: 08/21/2013 7:46 AM

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PETERSON — A nice trout stream flows just down in the valley from Steve Agrimson's dairy farm.

He and his son, Jordan, like to fish Pine Creek where it crosses their property. They've pulled a 20-inch trout from the water and tossed it back. One year, he saw a 26-inch fish.

A desire to protect the stream drives Agrimson to put conservation on his land. His list of conservation projects is extensive. He's used Environmental Quality Incentives Program funding for some projects; others he's done on his own.

Agrimson milks 335 cows and raises corn and alfalfa in a three-year rotation. The farm on the Winona-Fillmore county line has been in the family since 1927 when his grandfather, Alfred, moved there after trading farms with another owner. His father, Arne, started farming in 1955 and Steve started in summer 1991.

All of his 850 acres are in the 86,668-acre Rush-Pine Watershed, a targeted watershed through the Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative. Because his land is located in the targeted watershed, he's received funding for additional conservation projects that protect water quality.

Since 2011, he's installed three grade stabilization structures and three water and sediment control basins. A grassed waterway is scheduled for construction this fall. Agrimson is implementing contour farming and using cover crops after corn silage. He has a nutrient management plan.

In previous years, he installed 32 waterways and 11 diversion dikes with NRCS assistance. On his own, he's built 15 waterways, two ponds and four diversion dikes.

Agrimson didn't know about the special status of the Rush-Pine Watershed when he went to the NRCS office in 2011.

"He's worked with us before," said Sue Glende, district conservationist for the NRCS in Winona County.

Agrimson told the NRCS staff what he wanted to do and they looked at the sites and did estimates. His concern was catching everything that ran off from the dairy.

Protecting water quality is just the niche for the MRBI. The NRCS used EQIP dollars to help Agrimson implement his conservation projects. EQIP dollars are paid to producers based on a regional rate, Glende said.

There isn't a backlog of applications and funding is available for producers in the Rush-Pine Watershed who want to do projects that benefit water quality, Glende said. Their office has increased the number of EQIP contracts they handle annually from 20 to 44 because of the MRBI funding.

Hopefully, MRBI projects make a difference in the Gulf of Mexico and lead to better water quality for everybody, she said.

Agrimson said conservation efforts are making a difference. The stream is cleaner now than when he was younger. During spring rains, it would get muddy 20 to 30 years ago. What he sees reflects what farmers are doing further upstream.

Yet, this spring the potential for erosion was terrible with the incessant rains. Agrimson said he saw the worst erosion ever. It didn't matter what type of tillage was used, soil erosion occurred. On alfalfa fields, though, there was no erosion.

Erosion control is ongoing. Every year, Agrimson said he finds new spots to fix.

He is also experimenting and learning more about cover crops. He planted rye following corn silage and said it has made the soil more mellow and it also stopped spring soil erosion. Cover crops may be a challenge this fall with the expected later than normal harvest.

Agrimson said he's looked at projects designed by the NRCS before and thought it was overkill — that they designed projects too big. This spring, however, he saw those projects filled to the rim with water. He said to himself, 'that's why we did it this way.'

Projects are built to last 20 to 30 years and designed for a 25-year storm event, Glende said.

It's money well spent, Agrimson said.