From the windswept ridge on his farmland in southwestern Minnesota, Jack Weber can see Lake Shaokatan in the distance. The shimmering lake, headwaters of the Yellow Medicine River, has a direct connection to how he farms. Weber knows that any water that falls from the sky over his land either soaks into the soil or runs off, and it all ends up as part of the Minnesota River watershed's ground or surface waters.
And make no mistake, this farmer does all he can to keep water from running off his land.
"One thing I really don't like to see is the horizontal movement of water. That's a big no-no for me," says Weber. That's why he uses farming techniques that instead allow precipitation to percolate downward into the earth, where it nourishes soil and plant life and recharges groundwater supplies. By using no-till planting methods, rotating corn and soybean crops with small grains, growing cover crops, and grazing cattle on his land, he nurtures rich, absorbent soil that captures valuable rainwater. And that's a big deal. One of the biggest ecological problems in the watershed is rapid farmland runoff that speeds erosion and carries sediment and farm chemicals into waterways.
"Everything flows toward Lake Shaokatan. That's actually one of the main reasons we started doing this," says Weber, referring to his farming practices. "Water quality is my big thing."
Weber grew up on a cattle farm in the area but took little interest in farming himself until he returned from several tours of duty in Iraq with the Army National Guard. There he had seen that life in a desert landscape revolves around water, especially rivers. "To those people, water is everything," he says. "Here we just take it for granted, and the majority of us abuse it."
Weber started out in 2011 with rented farmland, then bought a parcel. He and his wife, Sara, now farm 280 acres of cropland and run more than 100 cattle on 140 acres of pasture, on a combination of rented and owned land near Hendricks. He credits Dennis Johnson, a district conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service—and his father-in-law to boot—with introducing him to many of the techniques that he has put into practice.
"When we first started farming, we did tillage and stuff like everybody else did. And he [Johnson] said, 'Maybe you ought to try something a little different.' As my father-in-law, he doesn't make me do it," Weber says with a chuckle, "but he's been an invaluable asset. And he initially pointed us in the direction that we took."
Johnson calls Weber a natural innovator, among the 10 to 20 percent of farmers "who are willing to try new things. He'll promote it too. If it works, he's going to encourage somebody else to try it."
Weber's innovative practices are a curiosity to many of his farmer neighbors. But he eagerly talks up the benefits he's seen, including an especially convincing one: impressive crop yields. By growing cover crops and including a small grain in his corn-soybean rotation, Weber says, he made more money this past year than he would have with conventional corn and soybean rotation. He freely shares his growing methods and results on his website under the slogan "Responsible, Sustainable, Profitable Farming."
By building resilient, absorbent soil, Weber makes the most of nature's irrigation system. In the past several years, he says, "We've gotten ample amounts of rain, and our ground is not prime by any means, but our yields are just incredible."
Weber's water-friendly practices earned his farm recognition under the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program, launched as part of the current Year of Water Action declared by Gov. Mark Dayton. It's basically a badge of honor bestowed by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture on select farmers who are doing the right things.
Weber heard about the program on a visit to his local soil and water conservation district office in Lincoln County. Told that he'd probably be a shoo-in, he was indeed cleared for certification after a farm inspection and some paperwork. Certification gives Weber a sign to display and, ostensibly, bragging rights.
But he's not the sort to brag. Weber knows that anything he can do to prevent runoff is good for the shallow, 995-acre lake downhill from the farm. Walleye, northern pike, and yellow perch swim there, and waterfowl gravitate to Lake Shaokatan and surrounding wetlands.
On the Weber farm, Jack and Sara like to immerse themselves in the sights and sounds of natural bounty, both wild and sown. "If we have time in the evening, we'll drive out into the field on a four-wheeler and sit in the middle of the calves that are out grazing cover crops," he says. "That's my favorite thing to do—to go out and watch progress."
Learn more about the Year of Water Action and take a water stewardship pledge.