Agricultural Water Quality Solutions

Completed June 2017

Despite our shared commitment to clean water, many of Minnesota’s assessed water bodies, including surface water and groundwater, do not meet water quality standards. Given that surface water and groundwater quality are directly connected to land use, the agriculture industry is uniquely positioned to offer critical solutions.

Excess agricultural inputs (like fertilizers) that are not absorbed by plants, fixed into the soil or naturally degraded will migrate, infiltrating into groundwater or draining into surface water. Soil that is not protected and healthy can erode into surface water, carrying with it bacteria, phosphorus and other contaminants.

Famers are stewards of the land they operate. Many manage their land with the specific intent to protect it, and the agricultural industry continues to innovate and bring new technologies to market that can maximize yields and resource efficiency. However, more can be done to ensure healthy, productive farms while protecting and improving Minnesota’s lakes and rivers for current and future generations.


On behalf of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA), Environmental Initiative convened a group of key players in the agricultural sector to develop a set of policy recommendations and industry commitments to reduce agriculture’s impact on both groundwater and surface water quality.

Consensus recommendations were developed by agricultural leaders over a series of four meetings facilitated by Environmental Initiative between September and December 2016.

A final recommended framework was presented to Governor Dayton for consideration and possible inclusion in the Governor’s 2017 legislative package.


Frequently Asked Questions

What was the Agricultural Water Quality Solutions process?

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA), in its dual roles as promoter of Minnesota agriculture and steward of Minnesota’s natural resources—and in response to Governor Dayton’s call for ideas for how all Minnesotans can contribute to improving water quality—asked and funded Environmental Initiative to convene and facilitate a series of meetings with Minnesota’s agriculture sector. The goal of this process was to engage the industry in a proactive and positive approach to water quality by identifying and creating a proposal or set of recommendations that, if implemented, would accelerate our progress toward water quality.

Through a facilitated process, participants brainstormed, developed and refined proposals that they believed would be beneficial for farmers and would accelerate progress towards water quality in Minnesota. The final proposal is the sum of those efforts and represents what the signed-on organizations believe to be their most transformative idea for increasing effective and efficient implementation of practices that can improve water quality and farm profitability.

The resulting recommendation is that of the agricultural sector. Other constituencies and individuals have also been invited through other mechanisms to offer their best ideas on how to improve water quality to the Administration, and many have done just that.

What is the recommendation?

Collectively, the agricultural industry leaders who participated in the process put forth a proposal, informed by technical experts, to foster local public-private partnerships to reach more farmers and to ensure water quality conservation is effective, practical and tailored to local needs.

The agreed-upon framework and subsequent allocation in the Governor’s budget call for funding and supporting the capacity of farmer-led councils to work with local watershed officials to bring forward the water quality solutions that will have the most impact in their community.

Work Group members feel this plan not only allows farmers to figure out what works best within their watershed and make recommendations to the state, but is designed to leverage private networks to achieve water quality outcomes in partnership with government efforts.

The current budget proposal is for $1.5 million in the coming biennium and $2 million in the following biennium to establish and fund local farmer-led councils through the Board of Water and Soil Resources.

What was the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s role in the process?

As a part of the “Year of Water Action,” Governor Mark Dayton called for ideas for how all Minnesotans can contribute to improving water quality. The MDA, in its dual roles as promoter of Minnesota agriculture and steward of Minnesota’s natural resources, initiated and funded this process in order to give one of its key constituencies—Minnesota’s agricultural sector—an opportunity to identify how it can best play a role in accelerating our progress toward water quality. Agency leadership helped advise on the process and attended the meetings of the Work Group, but was not a member. The recommendation of the Work Group is that of the industry (specifically the signed-on organizations), as informed by the input of the MDA through various conversations throughout the process.

What was Environmental Initiative’s role?

Environmental Initiative convened this process on behalf of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. Our staff designed and facilitated meetings to help the group develop a consensus recommendation to present to the MDA Commissioner and the Governor. The content of the recommendation that resulted from this process is that of the Work Group (specifically the signed-on organizations).

Who participated in the Work Group that developed the final recommendation, and how were they chosen?

The purpose of this process was to generate solutions to Minnesota’s water quality challenges from the agriculture industry directly. Therefore, Environmental Initiative and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture identified and invited individuals who represent crop commodity groups, livestock commodity groups, general farm organizations, food companies and industry retailers to participate in the process as members of the Work Group. Others were added to this group based on suggestions by agriculture industry leaders who were themselves participating. Ultimately, most of the invited organizations and companies participated, but a few decided that their members’ perspectives were well-represented by the other organizations involved.

How did the Work Group wind up at this recommendation?

The Agricultural Water Quality Solutions project was an intense facilitated process designed to move ideas forward that had the greatest support or that represented common ground between participants. The group ended up at this recommendation because it had the strongest, widest support among representatives of the agricultural sector, and because the members of the Work Group chose to focus their support behind what they believe to be the idea with the greatest potential to effectively increase the implementation of a broad suite of practices that can improve water quality and farm profitability.

Did you engage scientists or other technical experts to help inform the group’s recommendations?

Yes. Environmental Initiative facilitated a series of technical working group meetings with technical experts, scientists and industry innovators, including individuals from academia, local, state and federal government agencies, and individuals who farm and work directly with farmers. Technical working group meetings focused on generating diverse strategy proposals that were then presented to the Work Group for consideration and robust discussion. The ideas that came out of these technical input meetings were adapted into the final recommendation of the Work Group.

How were the individuals invited to participate in the technical working group meetings selected?

Environmental Initiative invited a diverse set of agricultural sector experts, within the MDA-approved scope of the project, to participate in the technical input meetings so that the discussion would include different points of view. As the process went on, we heard from other individuals who were interested in the project and in participating, and they were included in discussions.

Anyone who contacted us and expressed an interest in participating was welcome to join the process, and several individuals did. Technical input and ideas were gathered from individuals from a wide variety of constituencies: local government, academia, business, trade groups, state agencies, farmers, etc. Ultimately though, this process was about bringing representatives of farm groups and the agricultural sector together to identify ideas that they felt would be beneficial for Minnesota’s farm economy and accelerate our progress toward better water quality. The resulting recommendation is that of the agricultural sector itself. Other constituencies have also been invited to offer their best ideas on how to improve water quality to the Administration in other ways, and many have done just that.