Editor’s Comments: Edge of Field—Assessing Conservation Practices

Dec. 12, 2013

The Natural Resources Conservation Service is undertaking an important project to measure just how effective water-quality efforts are on the nation’s farmland. “Edge-of-field” monitoring stations are being set up in selected areas to examine the runoff coming off of agricultural fields.

The project is especially significant because the Clean Water Act provides exemptions for agricultural lands, which has long been a point of frustration for many urban water-quality managers in watersheds that are impaired by ag runoff. The current effort is geared toward determining which types of conservation practices are most effective, not toward enforcing water-quality standards; farmers’ participation in the program is voluntary, and data from individual farms will not be disclosed. Even so, the overall results will show which types of practices are worth pursuing and possibly which ones don’t warrant further investment.

There are many ways to improve the quality of runoff-and, almost as importantly, to reduce the total amount of runoff-from agricultural land. One is to manage irrigation practices; another is to limit the amount of fertilizer used, or to time its application differently, to reduce nutrient pollution. Erosion-still perhaps the most pervasive problem-can be curbed by planting cover crops. The program allows for comparisons between different techniques: for example, comparing sections of a farm with and without cover crops, or comparing water quality from sections with different types of plantings.

The NRCS already offers farmers and ranchers several ways to participate, voluntarily, in conservation efforts, including the Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative and the Conservation of Private Grazing Land Program. A big benefit of this new program-one that can go a long way toward convincing farmers that their efforts are paying off-is that the monitoring is done close to the action: “edge-of-field monitoring,” rather than downstream monitoring, whose results could potentially be skewed by other factors, or other farms.

Itself a part of the Department of Agriculture, the NRCS has help on the project from the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service; scientists from universities and non-governmental organizations are also involved in setting up and maintaining the monitoring stations and analyzing the data.

The project so far involves farmers in seven states: Arkansas, Indiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New York, Ohio, and Vermont. Financial assistance is available in some places to help farmers fund their conservation efforts, as well as to set up and maintain the monitoring stations.

Are you aware of similar monitoring efforts in your state, or have you worked with farmers on conservation or water-quality efforts? Tell us about it by leaving a comment below.
About the Author

Janice Kaspersen

Janice Kaspersen is the former editor of Erosion Control and Stormwater magazines.