By Emma Shumway
WASHINGTON, July 24, 2016 – Attendees of NACD’s 2016 summer meeting had the pleasure of taking an all-day tour of some of Minnesota’s most beautiful working landscapes. Not only was spending an entire day outside a welcome experience after a few days of business meetings, the tour provided a unique opportunity for attendees to learn about conservation initiatives implemented throughout Minnesota.
NACD kicked off the tour bright and early Monday morning with the recently completed Regal Creek Stabilization Project in Wright County. Hidden away in a Minnesotan suburb, this picturesque stream is home to an impressive array of conservation practices implemented by the Wright Soil and Water Conservation District. The 100 plus people on the tour learned how the project’s complicated integration of stream bank buffers and storm water management practices across steep slopes have stabilized and restored a half mile of this creek.
The second stop on the tour was the Plant Materials Evaluation Site located in Becker, Minnesota, hosted by the Sherburne Soil and Water Conservation District. A partnership between NRCS, the University of Minnesota, and four local SWCDs led to the development of this state-of-the-art research center for woody vegetation, pasture grass, and cover crops. Here the Sherburne SWCD described how the partnership was utilizing improved plant materials to increase tree species diversity and resilience in urban forests vulnerable to invasive pests and climate change.
After a busy morning, a lunch break at the Great Blue Heron Supper Club in Cold Spring, Minnesota, was the perfect place to refuel and spend some time appreciating the work of conservation districts with a casual award ceremony.
The next stop on the tour – Mill Creek Dairy – sparked the excitement of animal lovers as it provided an opportunity to get up close and personal with some friendly and happy dairy cows. A family operation, Milk Creek Dairy is owned and operated by brothers Tom and Ed Gregory, Tom’s wife Donna, and son Nick. Active in the Conservation Reserve Program, the Gregorys were named the Stearns County Outstanding Conservationist in 2008. At the dairy, numerous conservation practices have been employed, including feedlot upgrades, irrigation water management, cover crops, contour strips, terraces, farmstead windbreaks, and grassed waterways. On top of these practices, the Gregory operation features pollinator habitat planted in partnership with General Mills and certified through the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program in 2015.
The tour finished off strong with the Forever Green Initiative housed on the University of Minnesota’s campus in St. Paul. The initiative’s research has led to the development of new winter annual and perennial crops, like Kernza and Silphium, that pose less risk to water quality and have the potential to strengthen the rural economy. At the Cargill Building on campus, NACD tour goers weaved through several product booths featuring delicious cookies and bread (some of which we were fortunate enough to taste test) made with these high-value crops. A presentation following the expo explained how the partnership will develop and promote the use of these new sustainable crops throughout the agricultural supply chain.
After an eventful day, the tour buses headed back to the hotel with an air of excitement about the future of conservation. Undoubtedly, collaboration was the common thread between the diverse stops on the tour. It was inspiring to see how essential conservation districts are to making that collaboration happen.