A man operating a combine in a corn field.
Tractor in cornfield Bright green tractor in a cornfield on a sunny day © John Gregor/ColdSnap Photography

Stories in Minnesota

Feeding the World and Protecting Nature

Transforming agriculture in the grain belt.

Closeup of a no-till corn field.
Sustainable Agriculture Cover crops and no-till are just some of the methods farmers are employing to promote soil health and protect water. © Jason Johnson, USDA NRCS

Protecting our planet doesn’t have to come at the expense of our food supply. That’s why we’re working to build a more sustainable model, setting out to show how adoption of best management practices can improve profitability, capture carbon and protect water.

How Can We Feed a Growing World?

Farms and ranches in the Midwest are among the most productive lands on earth. The rich soils and abundant freshwater have made this region ideal for agriculture, aptly earning our affectionate nickname as the nation’s breadbasket. In Minnesota alone, our farmers support a $21 billion agriculture industry—ranking fifth for food production in the nation.

Minnesota has a legacy of leadership in agriculture, driven by the pioneering spirit of early Minnesotans who turned rich prairie soils into wheat, corn and soybeans that feed our nation and world. Appropriately, Minnesota is 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.

We are proud of Minnesota’s thriving agriculture economy and our place in supporting agriculture advancements over the past century. Unfortunately, polluted runoff to our lakes and rivers has increased markedly in recent years due to growing urban and agriculture development. Further, Minnesota’s #2 ranking in the U.S. for deforestation means that the forest cover that naturally cleans our water and protects it from polluted runoff is no longer there.

But these challenges facing our waters also present opportunities to work smarter with the land.

Enrich Lands, Protect the Environment

When settlers first arrived in this part of North America, they found the soils to be ideal for farming—and they were right. However, many of the practices that were commonplace in the past have led to degraded soil health, putting more of our waters at risk and compromising the long-term productivity and resiliency of our farmlands.

We need a new model that can sustain us into the future. One that tackles climate change by storing more carbon in the ground, helps improve water quality and reduces flooding, and provides more habitat for fish and wildlife—all while increasing crop production.

By utilizing better soil health, nutrient stewardship and edge-of-field practices, TNC and our ag-community partners can have a transformational impact on water, the climate and the ag economy. At the farm level, these practices will boost productivity and profitability. At a societal level, the benefits of healthier soils include improved water quality, filtration and storage, as well as carbon sequestration. Now is the time to protect our soils so our children and grandchildren can have clean water and abundant food.

All Acres for Our Water In Stearns County, Minnesota, local farmers are leading the way toward our sustainable future.

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.
  • Farmer Advisors: We're working to increase the number of trusted advisors and agriculture retailers influencing producers to adopt soil health and nutrient management practices.
  • 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.
  • 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.

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The Future is in Our Farms

It’s time to retire the idea that conservation and agriculture are automatically at odds. People are part of nature and our quality of life is dependent on the health of our farmlands. That’s why The Nature Conservancy has outlined its strategic goals to include providing food and water sustainably.

Shifting towards a more sustainable model doesn’t just ensure our ability to keep up with increasing demand for food. It also helps us improve water quality and tackle climate change. 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 would 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 their lands are a key piece of that puzzle.

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 liaison to the wonderful world of food production in Minnesota. 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 c...

Leif is The Nature Conservancy’s liaison to the wonderful world of food production in Minnesota. 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. Now he’s bringing 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.

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Bon Appetit!

As part of our partnership with Mill City Farmers Market, Lucia Watson, chef, restauranteur and trustee of The Nature Conservancy in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, shares her tips on how to prepare your best batch of polenta!

Lucia Watson: Making Polenta Welcome to Lucia's kitchen! Where conservation and culinary arts come together in a delicious duo.