Mower County farmer receives state recognition for conservation efforts

Mower County farmer and soil-health advocate Tom Cotter received state recognition Thursday for his conservation efforts that benefit wildlife and soil health at a 2020 Pheasant Fest kickoff in Minneapolis.

Minnesota Department of Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen honored Cotter for his participation in the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program (MAWQCP), including earning all three of the program’s new endorsements announced in December for wildlife, soil health and integrated pest management.

Cotter, the first in Minnesota to get MAWQCP’s soil-health certificate, was one of two people honored Thursday by Petersen for the wildlife endorsement.

Petersen, who toured Cotter’s Austin Township farm for a soil-health event in summer 2019, closed out Thursday’s Working Lands for Water and Wildlife session at 2020 Pheasant Fest with a speech that talked about how Minnesota and MDA believe in working-lands management for productive ag and natural resources.

The event was a pre-summit to the National Pheasant Fest & Quail Classic, the nations’ largest upland-themed event that is a tradeshow and convention for upland hunters, landowners, bird dog lovers, wild game cooking enthusiasts and wildlife-habitat conservationists. Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever organize the event that ran Friday through Sunday.

In December, MAWQCP launched three endorsements in addition to the 10-year certification it provides to qualifying farmers and landowners. The endorsements are available to the program’s water quality-certified producers.

Certified producers who achieve an endorsement receive an additional sign for their farm along with recognition for their conservation excellence. Interested producers and landowners in Mower County should contact Mower SWCD.

MAWQCP partnered with various non-profit organizations, such as Pheasants Forever and the Minnesota Soil Health Coalition, and state agencies to develop the endorsements. MDA’s endorsements aim to recognize that many conservation practices targeting water quality also benefit other conservation goals, such as wildlife, and celebrate MAWQCP-certified producers who are going above and beyond to implement conservation on their farms.

Cotter, who raises a variety of crops and runs a cow/calf beef operation just outside of Austin, continues to be one of those producers going “above and beyond,” Hanson said, not only on his land but also in public, including given dozens of presentations in recent years to groups of all backgrounds about soil health and cover crops.

In 2016, Cotter and his late father, Michael, were honored as Mower SWCD’s Outstanding Conservationists of the Year.

That same year, the Cotters were among four farm families in Mower County to be the first to get certified through MAWQCP, with a recognition event hosted on the Cotter farm.

In 2017, Tom Cotter joined fellow Austin-area farmer Tom Finnegan in doing extensive outreach under a 2017 Cover Crop Champion grant in coordination with Mower SWCD. Both are beef producers who use cover crops on their cropland.

Since then, Cotter annually does extensive outreach focused on cover crops and other soil-health practices, including a winter tour of “Cover Crops 101” classes and other speaking engagements across the state and region. His next free “Cover Crops 101” session is Tuesday, Feb. 18, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. at the courthouse in Albert Lea hosted by the Freeborn Soil Health Team.

Cover crops are a second, unharvested crop planted in coordination with regular cash crops, such as corn and soybeans. They are viewed as tools to keep soil in place; bolster soil health; improve water quality; and reduce pollution from ag activities. Popular cover crops include cereal rye, crimson clover and oilseed radish.

Mower SWCD has supported the MAWQCP initiative through being part of Minnesota’s first public-private-nonprofit partnership – Cedar River Watershed Partnership – started two years ago.

This effort’s main goal is to get farmers certified through MAWQCP and provide tools and resources to help them adopt new farm-management strategies to improve the soil, water, and economic health of their farms. It also addresses water-quality challenges in the Cedar River and Root River watersheds.

Mower county farmers and landowners interested in a MAWQCP endorsement or becoming water quality certified should contact Mower SWCD’s Alex Block at 507-460-4579 and [email protected].