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New crops could lessen nitrates

A proposal will switch the crop rotation in fields west of Park Rapids to crops that produce less nitrogen.

A proposed crop rotation could help with nitrate issues in the Park Rapids water supply.

Luke Stuewe, water quality advisor with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, has been working with area producers to determine new activities that support wellhead protection.

Last year the city of Park Rapids was notified well 7 had to be closed due to high nitrate levels in the water.

At that time, the city engineer said high nitrate levels in the closed well appeared to be from area farms that used fertilizers.

Over the last year Stuewe has been working with producers in the area, including RD Offutt Co. and Becker Farms, about ways to alleviate nitrate contamination. Some changes have already been made but it could take years before those changes are reflected in nitrate levels.

Nitrates can contaminate water by fertilizers being applied to crops that end up seeping into the ground. Nitrates can be particularly dangerous to infants under 6 months old. Infants who drink water containing high levels could become seriously ill and have symptoms including shortness of breath and blue baby syndrome.

A deep well has been drilled since last year that has come back with good water readings.

The agricultural land being talked about is just west of Park Rapids, Stuewe said. It is just about 1,000 acres.

"The traditional rotation in this area is potatoes, corn, edible beans," he said.

These are economically viable crops, Stuewe said. Changing from this means the farmers are taking a hit, he said.

"I really want to acknowledge they're taking a hit if they do this," Stuewe said.

The proposed rotation would result in far less nitrogen use on that land and take two years out of intensive agriculture completely.

"The proposal is two years of sorghum sudangrass and one year of altura potatoes," he said.

Right now the potato is the russet, which requires more nitrogen use.

"It's a big change," Stuewe said. "I think that over time we would see a benefit to the community's water supply with this rotation."

This area only affects the well that was closed, he said. There is a possibility that the well could be reopened if nitrate levels were reduced.

The potential advantages of the rotation include reduced nitrogen requirements for the variety of potato and sorghum sudangrass could be effective for cleaning up residual nitrogen from previous potatoes.

Another possibility is to change two of the fields to wheat, which has a tighter root system. Stuewe said this would also prevent nitrogen absorption.

"That's a pay cut," he said. "It's huge."

Stuewe said he will continue to work with producers on a plan to reduce nitrate usage in the area.

Anna Erickson
Anna Erickson is editor of the Wadena Pioneer Journal.
(218) 631-2561