Rural Vitality Winner: The Root River Field to Stream Partnership

  • April 13, 2018
  • |
  • Bjorn Olson

It’s a tried-and-true recipe:

  1. Combine good science (which needs all the allies it can get these days), hard work, and personal relationships
  2. Apply to difficult situation
  3. Learn lessons
  4. Repeat

It’s no secret that the relationship between our agricultural production systems and our water resources is a contentious and complicated one. It is the essence of a “wicked” problem– a situation involving incomplete knowledge, numerous people and opinions, large economic implications, and interconnected systems without direct correlation across time or geographical space.

In other words, solving the non-point source agriculture/water conundrum would require years of rigorous before-, during-, and after-monitoring. Not only that, but to make a dent in Minnesota’s water quality issues, you need participation between farmers, local and state governments, soil and water scientists, and agricultural vendors. You need the combined physical field visitation and complex modeling, and the funding and willpower to make it all work.

So, that’s what our Rural Vitality award-winners decided to do. All of those things.


The Root River Field to Stream Partnership began in 2009 and is led by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture in collaboration with farmers and their advisors, the Minnesota Agricultural Water Resource Center, The Nature Conservancy, Fillmore, Mower and Root River (Houston County) Soil and Water Conservation Districts, and academic researchers. The coalition includes 53 farmers, 500 fields, and approximately 10,000 cropped acres in the southeastern-most corner of Minnesota. Needless to say, it’s a massive undertaking.

For six years this partnership collected water monitoring data to establish a baseline for current agricultural conditions. This included monitors in the rivers and streams as well as at the edge of farm fields to capture melt and runoff events. These monitors gathered information about sediment, nitrogen, and phosphorus which was used to engage farmers about their operations, walk through their fields, and identify which conservation practices are needed, effective, and compatible with production operations.

Take a breather, I know it’s a lot…

So, did it work?


Of course it worked! Over the past two years, 98% of the farmers in the study area participated in on-farm walkovers to identify critical conservation needs. Ninety. Eight. Percent. Four hundred additional conservation practices were identified, of which 100 were considered a high priority.

In response to this extensive monitoring, the Partnership:

  • Installed 90 grassed waterways spanning 65,000 feet
  • Created 13 new water and sediment control basins and catchment ponds
  • Rehabilitated an outdated flood control structure
  • Planted 200 acres of cover crops
  • Enrolled 74 acres from the highest runoff-risk field with pollinator habitat through the Conservation Reserve Program

Data collecting will continue through 2020 and be used to evaluate how practices within a field influence water quality at the watershed scale. In addition, monitoring information can be applied to similar landscapes in southeastern Minnesota and the programmatic lessons learned from this comprehensive approach will set the standard for conservation engagement and action in other watersheds across the nation.


Our ceremony to honor the Root River Field to Stream Partnership and six additional awardees will be on May 23. Join us to honor the amazing state-wide work that’s benefitting our environment, economies, and communities.

Get your tickets