Mike Peterson stood in his field Tuesday, surveying the soybeans and wondering how much longer the abnormally dry weather would push back his harvest.
The Northfield farmer is used to dry conditions, however. He's spent decades tending the 1,000 acres at Twin Oaks Farm near the Cannon River, watching his dad try to keep the dirt in place and moisture in the ground.
Once he took over the family farm in the 1990s, Peterson expanded conservation practices on the land he works — minimally tilling the soil, or in some cases, not tilling the soil, when planting. Putting in cover crops to hold the soil in place after the harvest is done. Using last year's corn harvest residue to help grow soybeans, and strategically using less phosphates and other nutrients.
"In agriculture, we always try to find the most efficient way, and in most cases best for the bottom line," he said.
That's why Peterson is happy to share his farm's practices with other farmers. He's one of nine farmers along the Cannon, Cedar and Root River watersheds in a self-guided farm tour touting sustainable agriculture practices and promoting soil and water health.
The Soil Health Farm Tour started this summer after years of discussions between soil and water conservation districts (SWCDs) in southeast Minnesota. The concept copies field tours where farmers visit neighboring farms or productions in different parts of the state.
"There's a lot you can learn from talking to other farmers," said Ariel Kagan, director of agriculture strategy at the nonprofit Environmental Initiative. "Not everything that works on one farm is going to work on another. So I think this is a great way to sort of meet farmers where they are."
Environmental Initiative kick-started the tour after meeting with local soil and water officials. The nonprofit helped conservation districts recruit farmers and provided farms with interactive signs bearing QR codes, which direct tourists to information online about each farm's conservation efforts.
SWCDs have worked with farmers for decades to improve soil and water quality throughout the state, increasing their efforts in recent years as Minnesota implements tougher environmental goals.
Some conservation measures are getting more interest among farmers in Minnesota and across the U.S.
The 2017 U.S. Census of Agriculture (the latest edition) showed cover crop acreage across the country expanded from about 10.3 million acres in 2012 to 15.4 million acres in 2017. And a 2020 Minnesota Department of Agriculture report on vegetative cover found farmers were increasingly interested in cover crops, for which they can receive subsidies through federal aid programs.
Yet that same report noted cover crops were used on fewer than 10% of acres on farms in a study of 20 counties in Minnesota. In some places cover crops made up only about 2% of farmland.
"Agriculture doesn't always react very fast," said Kathy Zeman, who owns Simple Harvest Farm in Northfield. "We just need to react faster."
Zeman has run her 20-acre organic farm since 2006, using cover crops as pasture for a rotating supply of livestock she sells as meat directly to customers. She also serves on the Rice County SWCD Board of Supervisors, which she said she joined in part to learn more about the subsidy opportunities available for small-scale farms like hers.
She jumped at the chance to be part of the Soil Health Farm Tour to encourage farmers to adapt and stave off the ongoing effects of climate change.
"We've got those tax dollars there to help them out to try a new practice," she said. "There's a pretty large community of farmers doing this. … It always helps your bottom line."
Farmers can be reluctant to try new practices since they risk so much money with each harvest. Steve Lawler, a specialist with the Mower County SWCD, said he sometimes speaks with farmers who would like to adopt some practices but are concerned trying a different technique could hurt crop yield.
"This tour is kind of reflecting on that because these are producers that are looking at soil health, not just from water quality but from a productivity standpoint, and they see benefits both ways," Lawler said.
Kagan said Environmental Initiative is open to expanding the tour in the future. In the meantime, Peterson said he just hopes farmers can take something from his farm and use it to help their own.
"It's not a matter of trying to teach anybody," Peterson said. "It's just a matter of not trying to keep any secrets and just show people what's working here, what we feel is the way to run the soil that we run."