A crowd of people gathered Tuesday afternoon in a road ditch in western Rock County.
On the north side of the township gravel is a wide grassy waterway separating soybean fields, their rows planted along the contour of a gently sloping hill.
On the south side of the road is a cornfield, its rows planted straight through what used to be a natural waterway — what should be an extension of the one to the north. It’s now marked by short, sickly stalks stunted by June floodwaters.
A passing motorist wouldn’t compare the two sides of the road in terms of conservation farming, but it was mentioned Tuesday afternoon at the field tour of the Discovery Farms monitoring station.
The station, equipped with high-tech rainfall and water quality monitoring equipment, is set up at the outlet of a natural waterway on Peter and Jay Bakken farm ground.
The two agreed to be part of the statewide Discovery Farms project that studies conservation farming methods and their outcomes.
“What good are all the soil conservation measures if we don’t know if they’re helping?” Peter Bakken remarked.
Bakken farm ground in western Rock County is hilly and highly erodible, so through the years, they’ve installed terraces and waterways and have implemented no-till and contour farming methods.
The monitoring station measures the quality of water that runs off their soil, acting as a gauge of sorts to see if their methods are working.
It samples water for three forms of nitrogen, suspended phosphorous, total phosphorous and suspended solids (floating soil).
The equipment, which also serves as a small weather station, was installed a year ago when the Bakkens agreed to join Discovery Farms Minnesota, a farmer-led effort to gather water quality information from different types of farming systems, in landscapes across Minnesota.
Doug Bos of the Rock Soil and Water Conservation District said this large-scale network of research stations across the region is what makes the information so valuable.
“Rather than a lab with small scale measurements, these are field-size sites with quality data with real world applications to improve farming practices,” he said.
The Bakken Discovery Farm site now has a year’s worth of data from water samples collected, and Tuesday’s field tour was good time for show and tell.
For example, the equipment showed that there was very little water that ran off — only about 2 percent — during the heavy rainfalls in June and no sediment runoff either.
“That’s phenomenal,” said Ian Cunningham of the Pipestone Soil and Water Conservation District.
“You get more than half your annual rainfall in a short period of time and keep 98 percent on your land. That’s pretty good.”
By contrast, fields with no conservation practices — like the one across the road from the monitoring station — lost tons of topsoil during June’s heavy rains, much of it deposited into road ditches.
Peter Bakken spoke at Tuesday’s gathering about farming practices used at Bakken Farms.
“I’m a firm believer in residue,” he said, adding that no-till practices and cover crops have worked well for them.
Tim Radatz is a research specialist with Minnesota Agricultural Water Resource Center, which supports Discovery Farms.
He said extreme weather, events like the two-year drought followed by this spring’s flooding, is expected to become the norm. As result, he said, it’s more important than ever that farmers adapt their methods to withstand extreme weather.
Bos said he hopes Tuesday’s Discovery Farm tour will encourage other producers to improve their own farming practices.
“They see that their neighbor gets good results, they figure if they mirror those practices, they’ll get good results, too,” Bos said.
“In the case of the Bakkens, if they have minimal run off with the slopes they’re dealing with, why not adopt those farming practices?”
Bakken said he’s appreciated the process over the past year.
“We certainly didn’t pursue having this on our farm but agreed when Doug (Bos) strongly encouraged us to do it, and it did seem to fit,” he said.
“The bonus was that we have had to do — were expected to do — virtually nothing different, which is a testimony to the unbiased data collection and the results.”
More information about Discovery Farms is available at discoveryfarmsmn.org where data from monitoring stations is posted for public perusal.