More living cover on the land will clean our water

We appreciate Gov. Mark Dayton’s courage and persistence in calling out runoff from farm fields as a leading contributor to our state’s polluted waters. It is right for him to call on farmers to come up with solutions that will work for them. 
The governor’s water summit on Feb. 27 is about bringing Minnesotans together to develop solutions to this problem. As farmers, we have some ideas.
It’s our obligation to work for clean water, and the government has a critical and appropriate role in ensuring our water is not polluted. A large cause of farm runoff is the result of so much of farmland being without cover most of the year. 
Corn and soybeans are planted on 75 percent of Minnesota farmland and are green for only 110 days of the year. This creates a long brown season in which there are no living plants protecting the land’s surface and no living roots feeding the soil’s biological life below. That leaves the land vulnerable to soil erosion and runoff for most of the year.
We can change this by getting more living cover on our farms. By using more cover crops and perennial crops in our farming systems, we can have living cover on the land for most of the year. On a farm that has abundant green cover on the land year round, water is stored in the soil and filtered through plant roots and living soil. More water stays on the farm, and water that leaves the farm leaves clean.
Perennial crops include pasture for livestock. The market for grass-based meat and milk is strong. Incorporating cover crops like winter rye, hairy vetch and tillage radish into row crops could increase profits by decreasing fertilizer inputs and sometimes increasing yields. And at the University of Minnesota, research through Forever Green is developing new cover and perennial crops.
Current use of cover crops is less than 2 percent. We can do better. That’s why, to move the ball forward, we encourage Dayton to set an ambitious goal for our state to have 20 percent living cover on farmland by 2020.
With strong direction from the governor, many state agencies (including the Department of Natural Resources and Department of Agriculture) can put resources into getting this done, giving farmers the tools and incentives to be stewards. 
This is no small task, but if we don’t do this, we cannot clean our water.
Ryan Batalden and Loretta Jaus
Recipients, White House Champions of Change award