Headwaters Agriculture Sustainability Partnership Return on Conservation Investment Case Study

This project will investigate and create case studies for farming practices that benefit both cost of production for farmers and natural resource conservation (particularly water quality), demonstrate the benefits of these practices to Central Minnesota dairy and row crop farmers through peer-to-peer learning, and engage and support motivated farmers in making practice changes through a unique public-private-nonprofit collaboration. 

Project partners will assist participating dairy and crop farmers in quantifying the economic and environmental benefits of farming practices such as conservation tillage, crop rotations, improved nutrient management, etc. Project partners will help farmers package their data and stories for communication and demonstration to other farmers, with an emphasis on existing audiences and gatherings. 

Prevailing market forces are causing the loss of dairy producers and unprofitable economic conditions for crop farmers in Central Minnesota. Assisting farmers in understanding and making practice changes with both economic and environmental benefits will make farms more economically sustainable and protect natural resources that Central Minnesota communities rely on for growth, recreation, and long-term agricultural productivity. 

However, much of the available information and research around the environmental benefit and cost of different farming practices is derived from regions with longer growing seasons, does not account for integrated crop and livestock operations, is not presented by farmers to farmers, is intended for scientists, or is otherwise not presented or collected in such a way that it is maximally engaging for a Central Minnesota commodity crop and dairy farmer audience. Absent of specific, relatable examples, farmers are understandably hesitant to try practices that are not commonly used among their peers. 

The unique collaboration that has emerged to solve this problem includes Environmental Initiative, the Minnesota Milk Producers Association, the Stearns County SWCD, Syngenta, Steve Schlangen (farmer and Chair of Associated Milk Producers Inc.), The Nature Conservancy, Compeer Financial, Steve Peterson (farmer and former Director of Sustainable Sourcing at General Mills), Integrated Crop Management Services, and Houston Engineering Incorporated (collectively, the “Partnership”).

The goal of the project is to motivate change by farmers in Central Minnesota by demonstrating, through local in-depth case studies of farmers supplemented with aggregated regional data, that certain conservation and farming practices can improve both a farmer’s cost of production and natural resource stewardship. Support farmers motivated by this information to make practice changes by forming a cross-sector partnership of change agents, both in private industry and government, that will collaboratively support these farmers through technical advice, agronomic guidance, farming services, and cost-share resources.  

The Partnership intends for this project to create a replicable, scalable case study approach for demonstrating how agriculture can have a constructive influence on environmental priorities, especially water quality. If farmers can see in a peer’s operation a proven, direct link between farming practices and greater economic and environmental sustainability, farmers are far more likely to seek assistance in making changes from the organizations in the Partnership.  

Goals/Intended Outcomes: 

  • Motivate the adoption of farming practices that achieve: 

  • Short-term cost savings and efficiencies for dairy and crop farmer and long-term regulatory certainty and productivity  

  • Greater protection and improvement of water quality and soil fertility 

  • Motivate practice changes that keep dairy and row crop farms profitable and in business, and protect natural resources that Central Minnesota communities rely on for growth, recreation, and long-term agricultural productivity 

  • Engage crop advisors and agronomists as secondary audiences so they are more comfortable recommending sustainable farming practices to their clients 

  • Create a replicable, scalable model for showcasing sustainable farming practices that can be used to enhance profitability and environmental sustainability for a range of geographies and farm operations 




Environmental Initiative
Houston Engineering

Project Details

Water Quality
Corn (grain)
Corn (silage)
Natural Resource Concern
Soil Health
Water Quality


Haley Burns
Environmental Initiative
Project Sponsor
Drew Kessler
Houston Engineering