Humphrey School News—May 5, 2016

Humphrey School Team Nationally Recognized for Project to Improve Water Quality in Rural Minnesota

A team of students from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs is invoking the name of a beloved Minnesota cultural icon to advance its initiative to combat water pollution in southern Minnesota.

The team members—Julie Barton, Nicole Helget, and Robin Brooksbank, along with doctoral candidate Bolormaa Jamiyansuren, and Monica Bolinger from St. Catherine University—call their project “The Plum Creek Initiative,” referencing the place where Little House on the Prairie author Laura Ingalls Wilder lived as a young girl in the 1870s.

Now, Plum Creek and many other lakes, rivers, and streams in southern Minnesota are so polluted from farm chemical runoff and other contaminants that they are “unfishable, unswimmable, and undrinkable,” according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Through the Plum Creek Initiative (PCI), the team seeks to establish grass-roots education and neighbor-to-neighbor engagement to encourage farmers in that region to adopt “water-friendly” practices.

The students’ choice of topic was influenced by the experiences of Nicole Helget, who has lived on a farm nearly her entire life. Her childhood, spent swimming and fishing in the river near her family farm in southern Minnesota, is very different from that of her own children. They’re not allowed to go into the water near their rural home, Helget said, because it is so polluted.

 The students recently presented their initiative at the National Public Policy Challenge, a competition hosted each year by the University of Pennsylvania’s Fels Institute of Government. They competed against teams from nearly a dozen other top public policy schools in the country and finished in second place; it’s just the second year the Humphrey School has sent a team to the competition.

 The team will use its $5,000 prize money to get the Plum Creek Initiative up and running. They plan to start small, by focusing on Redwood County, Minnesota.  

 It’s “the perfect place” to launch the project, according to team member Julie Barton; in part because Redwood County is the location of Plum Creek, and also because most of the farms in the county are relatively small and locally owned.

 To spread the word about water-friendly farming practices, the PCI team is turning to what it calls “Minnesota’s secret power player”—the rural woman.

Farm women wield enormous influence behind the scenes, and have strong but highly respected voices in the agriculture community, said team member Robin Brooksbank. “If you understand rural life, you understand that,” she said.

What’s more, rural women are often the decision-makers. The research team notes that more than half of all farms in the U.S. are now owned by women.  

To encourage farmers to adopt water-friendly practices, the message needs to come from farm wives, daughters, and neighbors, said Helget—not from government agencies or urban policy makers.

The team plans to recruit about two dozen farm women from Redwood County, provide them with education and training, and then help each one develop her own individualized plan for spreading the word about how to improve water quality in her area.

Steve Kelley, senior fellow at the Humphrey School’s Center for Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy, advised the team members and helped them prepare for the competition. He said it was an opportunity for the students to focus on a real-world problem, with the expectation that they will follow through on the solution—as opposed to a hypothetical classroom exercise.

Kelley noted that having the students work on an interdisciplinary team was another benefit, with each member bringing different expertise to the project.

Beyond her personal experience, Helget brought to the team her talent as a writer. Barton did much of the design work, while Brooksbank was the “big picture person,” according to the others.  Jamiyansuren’s expertise is in applied economics, so she was the number cruncher. And Bolinger’s area of study is organizational communications.

“I’m getting much more out of what I’m learning because it feels more real,” said Brooksbank, “and I’m putting the concepts that we’re learning in the classroom to work.”

In addition to the prize money, the Plum Creek team is applying for grants and seeking additional funding to reach the $30,000 it needs to fully launch the initiative. The students hope to begin their first workshops in January. Their goal is to expand the initiative into other counties in southern Minnesota in future years.

The two-day Fels Challenge saw 10 teams from across the country compete before a panel of distinguished public policy professionals.  A team from the University of Chicago took home the top prize in the competition—$10,000—for its “Ballot Ready” project, a website to help voters navigate the array of local candidates they see on the ballot each election. 

Here's a video of the Humphrey School team's presentation to the judges at the National Public Policy Challenge.

Plum Creek Initiative, University of Minnesota

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