Stories in Minnesota

Feeding the World and Protecting Nature

It’s time to retire the idea that conservation and agriculture are automatically at odds.

Close up silhouetted stalk of wheat in a field.
Edge of field Practices like prairie strips can help farmers improve water quality, store more carbon in the soil, reduce flooding and support pollinators in working landscapes. © Uche Iroegbu

Protecting our planet doesn’t have to come at the expense of our food supply, nor the people who make it possible. In Minnesota, we’re working to build sustainable food systems that will nourish people and protect the environment.

Closeup of a no-till corn field.
Regenerative Agriculture Cover crops and no-till are some of the practices farmers are employing to improve soil health and increase profitability.

Our state has a legacy of leadership in agriculture and we're home to some of the largest and most successful food and agriculture companies in the world. Our farmers, agri-businesses, universities and government agencies have set the standard for innovation in agriculture.

In Minnesota alone, our farmers support a $17 billion agriculture industry—ranking fifth for food production in the nation.

We're proud of Minnesota’s thriving agriculture economy and our place as industry leaders. Unfortunately, runoff to our lakes and rivers has increased markedly in recent years due to population growth, changing land use and increasingly extreme weather. But these challenges also present opportunities to shift our thinking and work with nature.

The science tells us that adoption of soil health practices—like cover cropping and reduced tillage—can increase farm profitability, tackle climate change and improve water quality.

Sustainable Agriculture Conservation partners standing in a no-till farm field in Stearns County, Minnesota. © Jason Whalen / Fauna Creative
Tom Griebel headshot.
Tom Griebel Minnesota farmer Tom Griebel has worked over the years to improve the fertility and overall health of his farm's soils. © Uche Iroegbu
A person shows off their field of healthy cover crops.
Cover Crops Minnesota farmer, Tom Griebel, shows off his healthy alfalfa fields. © Uche Iroegbu
A farmer drives a tractor.
Equipment Machinery is one barrier that many farmers face to implementing soil health practices. © Uche Iroegbu
Dirt Rich Improving soil health just doesn't yield environmental benefits, it also makes farmlands more productive and thus more profitable. © Uche Iroegbu
Pat and Kristin Duncanson.
Kristin & Pat Farmers in Mapleton, Minnesota, the Duncanson have worked over the years to make their operation more sustainable. © Dudley Edmondson
Kristin Weeks Duncanson in an office.
Combine in a crop field.
Cover Crops Grown to protect bare soils from the elements, cover crops are one way farmers can improve soil health and increase carbon storage. © Dudley Edmondson
Pat and Kristin Duncanson.
Pat and Kristin Duncanson Farmers and owners of Highland Family Farms in Mapleton, MN. © Doug Shaw/TNC
A farmer stands by a riverbank with an outstretched arm
A group of cows standing in a grassy field.
Cattle In addition to stabilizing the soil and preventing erosion, Hanson's cover crops also provide supplemental feed for cattle, saving him time and money. © Uche Iroegbu
Prairie plants planted along a riverbank.
Root River Concerned with flooding and water quality issues in the Root River, Matt Hanson planted a thick bank of natural grasses on 80 acres along the riverbank. © Uche Iroegbu
Farmer standing in front of a gate.
Matt Hanson A farmer in southeastern Minnesota, Hanson has implemented cover crops, edge of field and a conservation easement on his property. © Uche Iroegbu
Sustainable Agriculture Conservation partners standing in a no-till farm field in Stearns County, Minnesota. © Jason Whalen / Fauna Creative

Minnesota Farmers Making a Difference

Tom Griebel headshot.
Tom Griebel Minnesota farmer Tom Griebel has worked over the years to improve the fertility and overall health of his farm's soils. © Uche Iroegbu

Tom Griebel

A few years ago, Tom Griebel noticed something was wrong with his soil. “It seemed more like dirt,” he says.

A person shows off their field of healthy cover crops.
Cover Crops Minnesota farmer, Tom Griebel, shows off his healthy alfalfa fields. © Uche Iroegbu

Tom decided to plant cover crops which protect fields from erosion and nourish soil fauna. Over time, he notes, "the soil has gotten better.”

A farmer drives a tractor.
Equipment Machinery is one barrier that many farmers face to implementing soil health practices. © Uche Iroegbu

After trying cover crops, Griebel also began to pursue no-till practices, a technique of growing crops without disturbing the soil through tillage. Although there is specialized equipment to support no-till farming, Griebel says, “I do not have a special planter. I have to drive slower and check more regularly and make adjustments. You have to manage it a lot more.”

Dirt Rich Improving soil health just doesn't yield environmental benefits, it also makes farmlands more productive and thus more profitable. © Uche Iroegbu

Griebel explains that better soil fertility leads to higher yields and income. “As soil health goes up, we can lower the inputs, fertilizer and things like that, even natural fertilizer like manure.” Griebel has been able to reduce his expenditures and improve profitability.

Pat and Kristin Duncanson.
Kristin & Pat Farmers in Mapleton, Minnesota, the Duncanson have worked over the years to make their operation more sustainable. © Dudley Edmondson

Kristin Weeks Duncanson

Kristin Weeks Duncanson, along with her husband Pat, owns and manages Highland Family Farms with the help of their children Ben and Gabe. Their operation is larger than average and produces corn, soybeans, pork and cereal rye for a local distillery.

Kristin Weeks Duncanson in an office.

Kristin is also a consultant who helps farms build and implement sustainability plans. She practices what she preaches and actively pursues sustainable solutions on her family’s farm.

Combine in a crop field.
Cover Crops Grown to protect bare soils from the elements, cover crops are one way farmers can improve soil health and increase carbon storage. © Dudley Edmondson

To reduce their environmental impact, Highland is working to incorporate cover crops and advance no-till and low-till practices. "We're having to think differently as the climate is obviously affecting us differently than it had," she says.

Pat and Kristin Duncanson.
Pat and Kristin Duncanson Farmers and owners of Highland Family Farms in Mapleton, MN. © Doug Shaw/TNC

Kristin says their sustainability plan includes three pillars: "profitability, environment and community.”

A farmer stands by a riverbank with an outstretched arm

Matt Hanson

When Matt Hanson was growing up, it was not unusual for the family farm to flood once a year or so, typically early in the season. Today, it’s not unusual to get a midsummer flood—significant flooding, two to three feet deep across several acres. It’s also no longer unusual for the farm to flood more than once in a season. One year, Hanson recalls, “it flooded four times.”

A group of cows standing in a grassy field.
Cattle In addition to stabilizing the soil and preventing erosion, Hanson's cover crops also provide supplemental feed for cattle, saving him time and money. © Uche Iroegbu

Hanson planted cover crops to reduce erosion during the fallow season between main crops and to protect water quality in the Root River. Cattle can also graze on cover crops later in the season, reducing feed costs and saving labor.

Prairie plants planted along a riverbank.
Root River Concerned with flooding and water quality issues in the Root River, Matt Hanson planted a thick bank of natural grasses on 80 acres along the riverbank. © Uche Iroegbu

Hanson also pursued flood mitigation strategies along the Root’s riverbed and placed conservation easements on the floodplain to protect the land where it was ill-suited for farming. He followed up by installing a thick bank of natural grasses on 80 acres along the river, which cost about $300 an acre to plant. He worried they’d be washed away, but they took hold and have survived several floods.

Farmer standing in front of a gate.
Matt Hanson A farmer in southeastern Minnesota, Hanson has implemented cover crops, edge of field and a conservation easement on his property. © Uche Iroegbu

Hanson no longer fishes, but when he’s checking on his cows, he sometimes visits with people who are fishing at these sites. He’s learned that trout and bass flourish here— a significant improvement over the carp and suckers he reeled in with his grandfather. “If you’ve got less dirt in the water, the trout survive better,” Hanson says.

Enrich Lands, Protect the Environment

Many of the practices that have become commonplace have led to degraded soil health, putting our waters at risk and compromising the long-term productivity and resiliency of our farmlands.

We need new food systems that can sustain us into the future. Systems that tackle climate change by storing more carbon in the ground, improve water quality and reduce flooding, and provide habitat for fish and wildlife—all while increasing crop production.

By taking advantage of soil health, nutrient stewardship and edge-of-field practices, Minnesota's ag community can have a transformational impact on water, the climate and the ag economy. At the farm level, these practices boost productivity and profitability. At a societal level, the benefits of healthier soils include better water quality, filtration and storage, as well as carbon sequestration.

How We Work on Sustainable Agriculture

  • Sustainable Practices: We're demonstrating and communicating the economic value and environmental performance of soil health, nutrient management and edge-of-field practices like wetland restorations. Examples include the Root River Field to Stream Partnership and All Acres for Our Water in Stearns County.
  • Farmer Advisors: We're working hand-in-hand with trusted farmer advisors and agriculture retailers to make resources and opportunities available for farmers looking to make their operations more economically and environmentally sound.
  • Supply Chain: We're leveraging market forces and increased interest in corporate social responsibility to drive change on agricultural lands and increase the sustainability of crop production. For example, we’ve launched the Ecosystem Services Market Consortium in Minnesota, a pilot program which will enable farmers to be compensated $20 per acre for implementing soil health practices.
  • Non-Operator Landowners (NOLs): We're working to increase the implementation of best practices on rented land through engagement with non-operating landowners and farmland managers.
  • Public Policy: We are seeking to influence farm policy and public spending through powerful communication, leveraging scientific information and examples of effective implementation. Learn more about how we work with policy and help us make sure sustainable agriculture is part of policy.
Farmer holding a handful of healthy soil and smiling slightly.

The Future is in Our Farms

Shifting towards a regenerative model doesn’t just ensure our ability to keep up with increasing demand for food. Improving agricultural practices across the U.S. has the potential to reduce 389 million tons of carbon dioxide per year—the equivalent of taking almost 85 million vehicles off the road. Not only that, adoption of soil health practices on just half of our cropland could reduce nitrogen and phosphorus loading in the Mississippi River system by as much as 20%.

As we continue to work toward a world where both people and nature thrive, it must be in the understanding that farmers and ranchers are key pieces of that puzzle.

Our Experts


A person in front of a snowy floodplain forest.
Andrea Eger Regenerative Agriculture Project Manager in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. ©

Andrea Eger

Andrea Eger brings 15 years of agriculture experience to her role as a regenerative agriculture project manager at The Nature Conservancy. She first fell in love with agriculture while working on diversified vegetable farms and has never looked back. Since her years on the farm, she has also worked as an agricultural education, program and project manager where she developed and strengthened partnerships, created resources for farmers to grow their businesses and advocated for adoption of regenerative practices. She is excited to join the TNC team to expand regenerative farming practices that build soil health, help combat climate change, create more resilient farms and protect water and wildlife.

A man in front of a farm field, holding a corn stalk
Leif Fixen Leif Fixen - Agriculture Strategy Manager for MN-ND-SD © Dr. Kathryn Fixen

Leif Fixen

Leif is The Nature Conservancy’s agriculture strategy manager in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. He’s also a former farm kid with lots of experience and perspectives on land management. Growing up on a family farm in Brookings, SD with a soil chemist as his dad, Leif has been learning about and practicing sustainable farming for as long as he can remember. Leif is well-versed in what it means to work with nature to build healthy and sustainable farms. He's pleased to bring that expertise to the work of TNC, with the goals of protecting water resources, unlocking the climate potential of agricultural lands and helping farmers improve their overall productivity in the process.

A person in front of a farm field.
Peter Mead Becker SWCD Administrator Peter Mead visits a project that is part of sediment-reduction work in the Upper Buffalo River watershed in August 2019 north of Detroit Lakes.

Peter Mead

Peter Mead joined The Nature Conservancy in 2020 in a new role as the chapter’s agriculture project manager, where he works to steward, facilitate and leverage new and existing relationships with landowners, farmers, producer groups, conservation partners and the supply chain to implement programs and strategies that lead to increased adoption of sustainable practices, including soil health, nutrient management and enrollment in emerging ecosystem service markets. Peter has nearly two decades of experience in federal, state, local and private conservation delivery, a keen interest in regenerative agriculture and has long been an advocate for systemic, realistic changes in land management that foster healthy soils, improved water quality and resiliency across Minnesota’s agricultural sector.

Contact Us

Get in touch with local TNC ag experts working on behalf of our lands and waters in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. 

Andrea Eger, Agriculture Project Manager

Leif Fixen, Agriculture Strategy Manager

Peter Mead, Agriculture Project Manager