St. Olaf farmland recognized for water quality
Many people don’t know that St. Olaf College owns 400 acres of active farmland. Even fewer know that thanks to the hard work of student researchers and farmer Dave Legvold, the water that leaves that land is clean and largely free of toxins that damage other ecosystems.
Legvold, one of three farmers who cultivate the St. Olaf farmland, has earned the Minnesota Water Quality Certification through the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. The Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program grants certification to farms that follow policies and laws that protect water quality.
This certification is the result of an ongoing collaboration among Legvold, St. Olaf students, and faculty members such as Professor of Biology Kathy Shea and Professor Emeritus of Biology Gene Bakko.
It began when Megan Gregory ‘04 tested the soil on St. Olaf farmland in 2003. Gregory found that the soil was “dead.” There was little organic material in the soil, and biological life was absent.
The soil had been stripped of much of its natural organic material, which is necessary for plants to grow, by poor farming practices. Because of Gregory’s discovery, the farming techniques used on St. Olaf farmland changed dramatically to restore and maintain the health of the soil.
Farmers who rent St. Olaf farmland now must use either no-till or strip-till farming methods. These methods encourage bacterial development in the soil that leads to healthier soil.
Taking care of the soil had other effects, including increased ability of the soil to take in water, much less compaction, increased nutrient retention in the organic matter, and decreased runoff.
“If you’re taking care of the soil, the waters that leave your farm will be better,” says Legvold, who is dedicated to sustainable farming practices.
Heavy tillage leaves the soil black, uncovered, and susceptible to erosion, which pollutes surface waters. Better soil and use of buffers leads to cleaner groundwater and ensures that St. Olaf farmland will continue to be farmable.
St. Olaf farmland provides students with the opportunity to do hands-on research and blend coursework with practice, guided by faculty members such as Shea and Associate Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies John Schade. Over the past 10 years, about 50 students have worked with Legvold to learn more about agricultural issues and conduct research.
This research collaboration has led to opportunities to present at local and national meetings. Kate Seybold ’15 and Connor McCormick ’16 presented their research on fertilizer levels and cover crops at the National Iowa Farm and Power Show, a conference of farmers focused on agricultural issues.
Seybold also presented her research at the Minnesota Academy of Science and the Ecological Society of America annual meetings.
“St. Olaf is progressive and ahead of the game in sustainable farming,” Legvold says.