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Conserving the family farm: Perham farmer finishes MN Ag water quality certification

A cow sits in the cooling barn on Bob and Tiffany Dambeck's farm north of Perham. Kaysey Price/Forum News Service1 / 2
The East Otter Tail Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) present the certification sign to Bob Dombeck, owner of Toad River LLC & Sandhill Dairy, Inc. north of Perham. From left to right: Brittney Johnson, East Otter Tail SWCD technician; Bob Dombeck, farm owner; Darren Newville, East Otter Tail and Wadena SWCD manager; and Jim Lahn, East Otter Tail SWCD area certification specialist. Kaysey Price/Forum News Service2 / 2

It took over a year of hard work and dedication, but Bob and Tiffany Dombeck can finally say their farming operations just north of Perham are Minnesota Agriculture Water Quality Certified.

The Dombecks Sandhill Dairy and Toad River Farm has officially joined the ranks of the 442 other farm operations (over 260,000 acres of land) that have been certified in the last two years when over 800 new conservation practices were implemented in the state of Minnesota.

Bob, who operates his 1800-acre dairy farm with his wife, brother-in-law and father, said a large part of his motivation to get certified came from his fellow farmers who urged him to do so--but he also wanted to show that farmers actually do care about water conservation.

“Being proactive rather than waiting...I think it’s a good message,” said Bill Fitzgerald, a water quality certification program coordinator with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. “There can be some finger pointing in lakes country if algae blooms in the lake.”

Of course, in Otter Tail County there are over 1,000 lakes, which are vital to the county’s economy, so keeping them clean of nitrate and phosphorus runoff from farm production is key.

To help with this, as well as other issues like land erosion, the Dombecks, along with the help of the East Otter Tail Soil and Water Conservation District, have implemented a number of conservation practices, officially certifying them as a water quality farm.

The Dombecks have agreed to begin utilizing cover crops after harvesting their edible bean crops, corn silage crops, and potato crops.

And the nice thing for the farm is the cover crop can be utilized.

“On a dairy farm it’s a great win for him that he can have an extra crop to feed the cattle,” said Fitzgerald, who stressed the fact that the water quality practices aren’t just to conserve for the environment but also to help cut farming costs and make production more efficient.

In addition to cover crops, the Dombecks installed a buffer strip along the river on the west side of one of their fields; they will utilize spring tillage as often as possible; and transition to conservation tillage after harvesting corn grain and soybean crops annually.

Then, to help with nitrates leaching into the groundwater, the Dombecks have begun eliminating nitrogen fertilizer on their soybean fields, and they have agreed to continue complying with the University of Minnesota nutrient recommendations and will continue to properly manage livestock manure and schedule irrigation.

“It was a complicated farm and it took a lot,” said Brittney Johnson, an East Otter Tail Soil and Water Conservation District technician who worked closely with the Dombecks to certify their farm. “Bob actually has a pretty large farm (compared with other farms in the district), and the dairy makes it even tougher.”

A year and some odd months, it took, but Bob said part of what drew him to certifying his farm in the first place was the challenge.

“Bob was very dedicated,” said Jim Lahn, area certification specialist with the East Otter Tail Soil and Water Conservation District. “You don’t do a year-long process unless you’re dedicated.”

Lahn added that not every farm takes as long to get certified as it did for the Dombecks--and there are funds available through recently implemented federal and state farm bills to help with the cost of becoming certifiable.

The entire process of certifying a farm is voluntary, done with the cooperation of the farm owners, and the East Otter Tail Soil and Water Conservation District is willing to work with farmers who are interested in checking it out. In fact, farmers don’t have to dive in like the Dombecks. There are funds available for people who are interested in just experimenting--maybe trying cover crops for a year--with getting certified.