What Are Working Lands?

Working lands are those lands in private ownership that are being actively used for farming, forestry or other productive resource-based uses. Over three-quarters of Minnesota's land area is privately held, and 51% of the state's land (26 million acres) is in agriculture.

Minnesota has made a significant commitment to clean water and habitat through the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment and decades of investment in conservation programs.  While the quality of Minnesota’s lakes, rivers, streams, and groundwater is improving, the pace of progress is not as fast as hoped.

sketch of stream and agricultural fields with buffer, perennial crops and grazing
Landscape with working lands elements, including perennial crops, cover crops, and grazing. Illustration by Dan Shaw.

Annual row crops leave farmland essentially bare for much of the year, making it vulnerable to wind and water erosion and loss of nutrients. The timing and intensity of precipitation are changing, increasing the risks of destructive flooding and soil loss. In spite of improvements in agricultural practices, such as conservation tillage, improved manure and nutrient management, and land set-aside programs, water quality is increasingly threatened by these forces.

There is increasing recognition among conservation professionals, researchers, farmers and other engaged citizens that in order to increase the pace of progress on water quality we need more vegetation on the land for longer periods of time. But is it possible to increase this ‘conservation footprint’ on the landscape without taking additional land out of production?

Conservation on private land has traditionally relied on two paths: voluntary approaches, with financial incentives provided through state and federal cost-share programs, and regulatory approaches, such as riparian buffer requirements or manure management regulations. Financial incentives will never be sufficient to cover all needs, and regulatory approaches can be controversial. An approach that harnesses market forces can create a third path with potentially far-reaching environmental and economic benefits. 

The Working Lands Watershed Restoration Feasibility Study

In 2018, BWSR completed a feasibility study and plan for a future Working Lands Watershed Restoration Program – a program that would provide incentives for landowners to plant perennial and cover crops that improve water quality. The report, posted below, includes an overview of promising crops and livestock enterprises, including perennial grasses and winter annual cover crops that keep roots in the soil and vegetation on the land throughout the year, improving soil health and wildlife habitat, storing carbon, and capturing excess nitrogen. Many of these crops can be grown for food or beverage production, grazed, used for livestock feed and bedding,or processed for applications such as bio-jet fuel, bio-based packaging, and renewable chemicals.

The study was directed by the 2016 Minnesota Legislature (Laws 2016, c. 189, s. 4) with the goal of improving water quality by increasing living cover on the landscape at a watershed scale.

BWSR coordinated this effort with stakeholders and other state agencies, including agricultural and resource conservation interests, commodity groups, watershed districts, soil and water conservation districts, the biofuels industry, landowners, researchers at the University of Minnesota, and the Departments of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Health, and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

BWSR will continue to work with partners and stakeholders to analyze water quality impacts, track the progress of crop development, and investigate emerging market opportunities. Updates will be posted to this page regularly.

Project Update, March 2020

Since completion of the feasibility study, BWSR staff have focused our efforts on the prospects for establishing continuous living cover (perennials and cover crops) in vulnerable Drinking Water Supply Management Areas (DWSMAs) to improve drinking water quality. Partners in these efforts include the Departments of Health and Agriculture, the Forever Green Initiative, the Minnesota Rural Water Association, and others. As part of these efforts, we continue to:

  • Identify criteria and potential locations for pilot programs;
  • Seek funding from a variety of sources;
  • Explore opportunities to promote adoption of cover crops and related BMPs through existing grant programs; and 
  • Track and document the continued progress in developing supply chains and markets for emerging perennial and cover crops.

Primary Reports

Working Lands Watershed Restoration Feasibility Study and Program Plan, February 2018 (pdf)

Report Summary (pdf)

Appendix 1: Working Lands Survey Summary Report (pdf)

Appendix 2: Six Watersheds Comparison Spreadsheet Tool and Documentation (pdf)

Appendix 3: Farm Bill Opportunities for Working Lands (pdf)

Appendix 4: Water Quality Modeling Results (pdf)

Supplemental Reports

Environmental Initiative produced a follow-up report in June 2018, Exploring Working Lands Watershed Restoration Opportunities (pdf) that explores two aspects of the Working Lands effort:

  • How delivery of incentives for establishment and maintenance of perennial and cover crops could increase adoption of conservation practices while building a stronger base of knowledge about the relationship between these practices and the risk of crop loss or yield reduction. The report examines the details of the Iowa Cover Crop – Crop Insurance Demonstration Project, and compares it to Minnesota’s cost-share and other incentive programs.
  • Identification of vulnerable drinking water supply management areas or other areas of water quality concern where the social and economic context might be most conducive to introducing or increasing the production of perennial and cover crops. The report identifies several regions and specific locations that might be suitable for a Working Lands Watershed Restoration pilot program.

In July, 2018, the Department of Natural Resources completed a modeling exercise in the Chippewa River - Shakopee Creek watershed, using the Gridded Subsurface Hydrological Analysis (GSSHA) model to assess the impacts of conversion of agricultural land to perennial and cover crops on 1) the volume of runoff; and 2) the amount of evapotranspiration produced by vegetation, in both the growing season and the non-growing season. The model uses the same conversion scenario used in the Working Lands Watershed Restoration Feasibility Study: conversion of 30% of the marginal cropland in the watershed to a perennial crop, and introduction of a cover crop on 40% of the remaining cropland. 

The results of the simulations (Technical Memorandum: Shakopee Watershed Land Use Conversion (pdf) indicate that these changes in land cover can reduce surface run-off by 10% to 27% in the non-growing season, when the ground would otherwise be fallow, and can increase evapotranspiration by an average of 130%.

Meeting Notes 

Interagency Meeting, January 26, 2017 (pdf)

Stakeholder Meeting, February 13, 2017 (pdf)

Stakeholder Meeting, July 28, 2017 (pdf)

Stakeholder Meeting, September 20, 2017 (pdf)

Stakeholder Meeting, November 16, 2017 (pdf)

Stakeholder Meeting, December 8, 2017 (pdf)

Meeting Presentations: Forum on Market Opportunities, December 2017

Project Overview, December 2017 (pdf)

ANTARES - Biomass Project Development, December 2017 (pdf)

Working Lands Oilseeds for Sustainable Aviation Fuel (pdf)

Economics of Producing Advanced Oil Seeds, Perennial Crops, and Kernza in Minnesota (pdf)

Meeting Presentations: Forum on Working Lands for Grazing, Forage, and Feed, April 2017

Meeting Summary (pdf)

Stoney Creek Farm: A Case Study in Grazing and Cover Crops (pdf)

The Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship Program (pdf)

Biomass Opportunities for Feed, Fuel, and Bedding (pdf)

Economics of Forage for Cattle (pdf)

Economics of Hay Production in Minnesota (pdf)







Suzanne Rhees
Special Projects Coordinator