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Agricultural outreach program continues

Dakota County and the Vermillion River Watershed have played a leadership role in how to understand and address groundwater and surface water contamination from agricultural activities through the Agricultural Outreach program, developed as a result of the Hastings Area Nitrate Study.

At its regular meeting this week, the Dakota County Board of Commissioners approved an extension of the contract with the University of Minnesota to continue this program through June 2012.

The Hastings Area Nitrate Study (Phase I) was conducted from 1999 through 2003 to determine the extent and sources of nitrate contamination problems in the city of Hastings and the surrounding areas. One quarter of the private wells tested as part of the study exceeded the drinking water standard for nitrate (10 milligrams per liter) and another quarter contained elevated levels of nitrate (3-10 milligrams per liter).

Nitrate can come from a variety of sources, but in the Hastings Area Nitrate Study, it was found to be strongly associated with row crop agriculture. The Vermillion River was found to play a role in transporting contaminated water from its upper reaches to its lower reaches.

Dakota County has been conducting HANS Phase II, working in cooperation with the University of Minnesota Extension Service, Dakota County Soil and Water Conservation District, Minnesota Department of Agriculture, United States Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, the City of Hastings and others to prevent future groundwater contamination within the Vermillion River Watershed.

The Agricultural Outreach Program provides farmers with science-based, practical information about strategies to protect water quality while maintaining crop yields and productivity. Among the services provided by the United of Minnesota Extension Agriculture production water quality educators are nitrogen rate studies that demonstrate how to achieve the best yield with reduced nitrogen input, a workshop on manure management, pesticide application practices and riparian forested buffers. Area farmers have responded positively to these efforts, adopting new and different farming and land management practices that will improve water quality in the long run, such as reducing their nitrogen fertilizer application rates.

The amendment to the contract means that Dakota County will pay for half of the extension -- $15,637.50 -- and the University of Minnesota Extension will pay the other half.

The 2012 portion of the contract will be funded entirely by the University of Minnesota.