Ever since Governor Dayton announced his Buffer Initiative there have been many conversations about it from the fence line to the State Capitol. Regardless of which side of the issue your opinion lies, the value of buffers is not measured by bushels.
Buffers can be highly productive areas if designed and planned from that perspective. Many news stories have focused on the “loss” of production from buffer areas. Production from buffer areas can actually be greater by not having these areas in annual row crop. That production though, is not measured in bushels and in our society, has not yet been effectively monetized.
Production could be measured by tons if a landowner were to plant the area to a hay or biomass crop, which many have done. A person could also measure production by the increase in pollinators and wildlife habitat if those goals were pursued. Pounds of beef [or other meat products] might be the measurement if the area was appropriate to establish pasture for grazing. Landowners could plant high value crops like grapes, blueberries, hazelnuts, elderberry, apples or hops to provide diversity, supply ecosystem services and protect the land within buffer spaces.
At sites where runoff water flows overland to surface water, buffers produce clean water by removing sediment, pesticides and nutrients. If runoff travels through tile lines, the perennial buffer can contain drain lines running parallel to surface waters that effectively remove nitrogen from tile drain water. Production from these areas is measured by pounds of nutrient reduced, tons of sediment staying in the field, increase in carbon storage, greenhouse gas reductions or fishable, swimmable waters. Regardless of which perennial the landowner chooses to plant in their buffer space, there is value. We should never look at it as taking land out of production, but rather changing the production paradigm within the buffer landscape. The appreciation of these values was captured by Aldo Leopold in “A Sand County Almanac” when he stated, “Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language.”
The language of the true value of a buffer acre is not yet spoken by landowners who invaded these spaces over time with annual crops. A strong stewardship ethic by all landowners is paramount to a collective high quality of life many in Minnesota desire. Well designed, productive buffers are an indicator of stewardship ethic. Stewardship is not measured in bushels either.