NORTHFIELD, Minn. – The Peterson family, operators of Twin Oaks Farms in Northfield, have been named this year's outstanding conservationists in Rice County, Minn., by the Rice County Soil and Water Conservation District.

Mike and Kay Peterson along with their two sons manage around 800 acres of corn and soybeans. The Petersons use strip-till and no-till methods on their operation.

Mike Peterson said he and his family are responsible for about 43 million square feet of topsoil, giving them incentive to preserve what's in the ground. Rice County's thin layer of topsoil can be pretty productive ground, he said, but droughts are always a concern — making water management essential.

"There's all kinds of reasons to try to keep our investment out of the streams and rivers and keep us productive," he said.

Peterson explained how they harvested a stretch of corn planted in an area with interseeding around three years ago, and the results turned them into believers of the practice.

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Last year, Peterson planted 50 acres of cover crops with a custom interseeder rented from the Rice County Soil and Water Conservation District, planting ryegrass, Bayou Kale, purple top turnip and five acres of winter cereal rye. Peterson built the Rice County SWCD cover crop interseeder last year, using an old spryer bar and a Gandy seedbox/blowing system.

This year, he's planning to fall interseed cover crops into soybeans going into corn next year. He said if weather conditions are favorable, he'll plant up to 400 acres with a four-species mix consisting of oats, some clovers and radish. On the remaining corn ground going into soybeans, he plans on planting winter cereal rye to prevent soil erosion and build organic matter.

"There are other early adopters in Rice County who we can compare cover crop practices to; we are not the only ones," said Mike Peterson. “There are good stewards in the county, and we communicate with them to try and make cover crops work.”

The Petersons started Twin Oaks farm in 1998, and started using conservation practices not long after that. The farm, located just east of the city of Northfield in Rice County, has added "critical area plantings of native prairie on highly erodible end rows where erosion was happening year after year", according to the Rice County SWCD.

Mike Peterson is now in the process of building his own interseeder, which will allow him to break up thick cornstalk residue, apply nutrients and seed cover crops. Peterson uses his experience in building custom farm equipment for his business Peterson Equipment.

"Our farm is also multi-generational and we want to leave topsoil for the future generations of my family," said Peterson. "As a kid, I watched a lot of fence lines get lower on the downhill side and higher on the uphill side. It’s apparent that a lot of soil can move around after heavy rains. I don’t think the rivers and Lake Pepin want our dirt, and I don’t want to give it up."