University of Minnesota Alumni Association


Greener Farms of the Future

U of M researchers are partnering with farmers to find new ways to cultivate the soil and raise animals—and help mitigate climate change.

Carmen Fernholz at his farm near Madison, Minnesota. This plot of organic corn was initially his daughter Connie Carlson's project, but it grew into a collaborative effort between them.
Photo credit: Mark Luinenburg

Fields of tall grasses waving gracefully in the wind represent one of the iconic images of the American agricultural tradition. But, over the decades, that pastoral image has changed. Today much of American agriculture consists of industrial-scale, chemical-intensive, single-row crop farming—with corn and soybeans being dominant, particularly in the Midwest.

Unfortunately, the natural environment has suffered as a result of this move. Growing corn, soybeans, and other row crops contributes significantly to overall emissions of the greenhouse gases (GHGs) that accelerate climate change. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency says agriculture contributes 25 percent to the GHG emissions in the state. And according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations body that examines the science behind our warming earth, the three main causes of the increase in greenhouse gases over the past 250 years have been fossil fuels, land use, and agriculture. The IPCC said in 2019 that worldwide “agriculture, forestry and other types of land use accounted for 23 percent of human greenhouse gas emissions.” (The Environmental Protection Agency says that U.S. agriculture overall contributed roughly 10 percent to the country's GHG emissions in 2018.)

However, the challenge here is significant, because farmers often must choose to plant readily salable commodity crops for economic reasons, leaving them with few good alternatives.

That’s why more and more Minnesota farmers and University of Minnesota researchers are deeply engaged in identifying how agricultural practices might change in the future to reduce emissions and better protect soil and water, thereby benefitting the climate. Since much of ag research takes place in the field, those two categories—farmers and researchers—often overlap, and there are examples all around the state of Minnesota, led by the U of M.

Some of the burgeoning change is driven by consumers, says Connie Carlson, a market opportunity development specialist for the Forever Green Initiative, a joint U of M and USDA Agriculture Research Service (ARS) program.

“There has been a shift across the spectrum in the ag industry as consumers have become more and more aware about climate change, the need for stewardship of natural resources, and engaged in food itself,” Carlson says. “There has been a ripple effect; we’ve seen industries of all sizes responding to that, because that’s where consumers are shifting their dollars.”

The U of M’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences (CFANS) has a network of Research and Outreach Centers throughout Minnesota. One of them is the West Central Research and Outreach Center (WCROC) in Morris. Researchers there are involved in a number of projects with the ultimate goal of reducing fossil fuel consumption in production agriculture.

For instance, the GHGs carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide are produced during the manufacture of nitrogen fertilizer, which is widely used in agriculture. But by using renewable energy sources, “we could replace 100 percent of the fertilizer made with fossil fuels,” says Mike Reese, WCROC director of renewable energy. WCROC’s Renewable Hydrogen and Ammonia Pilot Plant uses a portion of the wind energy generated from a nearby turbine to produce fertilizer. The University is also leading a partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and Proton OnSite, a Connecticut-based firm, to develop a small-scale ammonia synthesis system using water and air, powered by wind energy.

Safeguarding the Soil

One approach that could make big strides toward a greener Minnesota relatively soon is switching to ag management practices that better protect the soil, which is a huge repository for the carbon that is both necessary for life and a major cause of warming when released into the atmosphere. (Carbon in soils can be released into the air through a variety of agricultural tasks, including overuse of fertilizer, tilling, monocropping, and other practices.)

“Soil is the world’s largest reservoir of carbon, much larger than the ‘pool’ of carbon in the atmosphere,” says Anna Cates, soil health specialist with the Minnesota Office for Soil Health (MOSH)—a collaboration of the Board of Water and Soil Resources and the U of M Water Resources Center. “[Industrial] agricultural practices have caused us to lose a lot of nutrients, especially carbon. We’re in a deficit; a lot of the carbon that was in the soil is now in the atmosphere.”

Soil conservation strategies include planting cover crops, no-till and reduced tillage farming, switching from corn and soybean rotations to perennial grains such as crested wheat grass, or restoring fields to native grasslands. To reduce carbon emissions from the soil, “reducing tillage is one of the lowest-hanging fruit farmers can undertake,” Cates says. “It’s not always possible with certain crops and takes a little bit of a learning curve on how to manage impaction, weeds, etc., but in working with Extension educators and ag retailers, that is a place where some gains can be probably made very quickly.”

Carlson notes farmers are open to change if it can be done without negatively impacting their income. And Minnesota farmers have already experienced climate change in the form of “extreme” rain events, which have become more common and damaging, she says.

“We’re working with some pretty innovative growers who may already have an inclination to try out new things,” Carlson explains. “Groups like the Sustainable Farming Association and the Minnesota Farmers Union have long advocated soil health work. They understand what the Forever Green Initiative is trying to do.”

At present, while many Minnesota farmers are heavily invested in conventional (chemical-intensive, row crop) agriculture, if they are interested in trying more ecofriendly alternatives, Cates and her colleagues recommend starting small and renting equipment to manage experimental patches to gain insight into the new practices.

Carlson agrees that the rapidly changing climate makes it urgent for the world to take action, and agriculture can play a significant role in that effort. “We’re building a whole tool kit so that Minnesota can be a ‘forever green’ state, with perennial crops dotting the landscape, and farmers can become heroes.”

The Forever Green Initiative is also engaged in developing new crops that keep farmland in continuous living cover, year-round, thereby protecting the water and soil and providing wildlife habitat. And they are also cash crops, Carlson notes. One such dual-benefit crop is Kernza, the first commercially available perennial grain grown in the U.S. It can be used for baking, milling, distilling, and “puffing” as a cereal product. U of M researchers who developed a new variety of Kernza are working with farmers around the state to test it, Carlson says, in addition to winter annual oil seeds like camelina. Another potential new cash crop being tested is hybrid hazelnuts, which can grow perennially even in Minnesota’s harsh climate.

A Modern Traditionalist

Carmen Fernholz, the father of Connie Carlson from Forever Green, has been an organic farmer since 1975. He farms about 500 acres near Madison, Minnesota, as both an ag modernist and a traditionalist. In employing “sustainable” ag practices, he’s helping to bring back some of the earth-friendly practices he remembers from his youth in the 1950s. In the first half of the 20th century, most farmers grew and rotated a mixture of crops, he notes, such as wheat, oats, corn, and flax, rather than focusing solely on corn and soybeans.

“When I was growing up on the farm, my mother had a wheat grinder and ground her own wheat for baking bread,” Fernholz says. “Dad would ‘flag out’ an acre of wheat field that never got sprayed with chemicals. There was a message behind that,” he adds.

Fernholz believes that large-scale farming of corn and soybeans has produced unintended consequences. As modern agriculture evolved, commodity prices have dropped, leaving farmers’ margins smaller and smaller. “Today, [when prices go down], it’s difficult to make any amount of money,” he says. “The only way to deal with that has been by growing more. That has had a lot of negative impact.”

In recent years, Fernholz has been doing less fall tillage on fields that have been harvested, leaving corn stalks in place, and growing cover crops like alfalfa to help the soil stay in place over the winter. “For two or three years, we’ve had 500 acres with no tillage, and cover crops growing on it. We’re really finding a significant beneficial impact on soil quality,” he says. “As we increase our understanding of our impact on the soil, we are going to see that these techniques are a necessity. I’m hoping that we can learn to do this without being regulated. If we keep working with people like the U of M researchers on soil health and practices, we can incorporate them.”

In 1997, Fernholz served as one of the first endowed chairs of the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture, a partnership between CFAN, U of M Extension, and the Sustainers’ Coalition, a group of community-based nonprofit organizations. As both a farmer and a researcher, he’s worked with U of M graduate students on projects such as isolating a bacteria that was fatal to Canadian thistle, a noxious weed. One of Fernholz’s most recent collaborations with the University is growing a test plot of about 15 acres of a new Kernza variety.

Another farmer-researcher is Jane Jewett (B.S. '92, M.S. '95), associate director and coordinator of the information exchange program at the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture. On their farm in Aitkin County, Jane and her husband, Joe Jewett, raise beef cattle using a technique called rotational grazing. Cattle graze on fields covered with a mixture of cool season grasses and legumes, “rotating” to a new patch of land nearly every day. Cattle raised on grasses rather than corn-based feed produce healthier meat, according to some researchers. And the perennial grasses help build the soil’s organic matter and improve its ability to hold water, Jewett says, in addition to minimizing carbon loss.

She’d like to see more widespread adoption of earthfriendly grazing techniques but believes more grower education is needed about the benefits of the practice. Another challenge is that while there is a robust system of crop insurance to cover row crops, insurance available for livestock and forage is “sketchier,” says Jewett. And, given how deeply invested most farmers are in row crop agriculture, “there is a lot of hesitation among farmers to try something different. Some of that is based on concern whether the economics of it will work.”

Switching to Alternatives

Another primary strategy to shift agriculture’s impact on the earth is switching from petroleum-based energy to alternatives like wind energy and biogas. The goal is to make farms “carbon neutral” operations.

Dennis Haubenschild contends agriculture has the potential to supply 40 to 50 percent of the nation’s renewable energy “if we used all of the tools available.” Among the tools Haubenschild and his sons use on their farm near Princeton, Minnesota, are 1,600 cows, each of which produces about 80 pounds of manure per day. Burning the manure inside an anaerobic digester produces energy in the form of biomethane. The gas can be used to power a turbine to generate electricity and heat, or it can be fed into a natural gas pipeline to be sold to a local utility.

The digester the Haubenschilds began using in 2000 produces 100 to 125 kW per hour—enough electricity to power their dairy, plus 40 homes.

The Haubenschilds have partnered with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, the Minnesota Project, and the University of Minnesota Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering Department to conduct fuel cell research using biogas from the farm’s anaerobic digester (known as ADs). Some of the biogas created in the digester is piped to a University research facility on the farm to power a 5kW fuel cell.

The Haubenschild farm was also one of the first in the U.S. to sell carbon credits on the Chicago Climate Exchange, beginning in 2001. (The program only lasted for five years, under its enabling legislation). Haubenschild partnered with Environmental Credit Corporation, a credit aggregator that sold carbon credits to the Exchange, along with power companies, corporations, and other entities. Now the Haubenschilds are seeking federal grants to help defray the cost of building a much larger generator, planning to sell the electricity they generate to the local utility, East Central Energy. Producing revenue is good, but “the most important thing is we want to be carbon neutral and sustainable,” Haubenschild says.

University researchers like Bo Hu, a professor of bioproducts and biosystems engineering, want to develop a more stable system that can provide economic incentives for farmers to run smaller scale AD systems, using subsidies similar to those that made corn ethanol a viable industry. Centerpoint Energy is among the entities lobbying for mandated “blending” of AD-generated methane with the natural gas sold by companies like Centerpoint. If public support is provided for on-farm digesters, “we can create a new industry that will duplicate the success of the corn ethanol industry,” Hu says.

Where the Sun Shines

Ralph Kaehler is the fourth generation to farm his family's land near St. Charles, Minnesota. He's incorporated solar energy panels to help power the farm.
Photo credit: Dean Riggott

Along with conventional crops, Ralph Kaehler harvests energy directly from the sun on his family’s fourth-generation farm near St. Charles, Minnesota. He’s also a solar energy entrepreneur. His son, Cliff, earned accounting and finance degrees at Georgetown University and worked for Credit Suisse before moving back to Minnesota and launching the family’s “other” business, Novel Energy Solutions LLC. NES has installed more than 200 solar systems since it opened in 2012 and developed more than 100 megawatts of community solar garden (CSG) projects, including the first four CSGs in Xcel Energy’s Minnesota territory.

A typical on-farm array is a 40-kilowatt (kW) system that produces about $415 per month at a 10 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh) electric price, says Kaehler, who unsuccessfully ran for the Minnesota Senate in the recent election. That is the maximum size for net metering with rural electric coops. A 40 kW array costs about $90,000 for a cash purchase, with a payback time of eight to 12 years.

“Solar panels are just the beginning,” says Kaehler, who has worked with U of M researchers as a co-researcher and consultant. “Improved batteries to enable storage will be a game changer. With the projected growth of electric vehicles in the coming years, “what if there were charging stations at farms? As storage technology improves and becomes more affordable, people will have the option of going off the grid. So utilities are going to have to learn how to cooperate or lose customers. We will be using fossil fuels for some time, but we can’t keep using them at the rate we have been. If we are going to leave a world with opportunity for our kids and grandkids, we are going to have to change.”

Dan Emerson (B.A. '74) is a freelance writer in the Twin Cities area.

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