From December 28, 1999 edition of the Morris Sun-Tribune - copyright 1999
Reprinted with permission

Documentary produced at UMM explores Minnesota River Basin to be on TV.
A new television documentary created at UMM explores the history, environment, and agriculture of the Minnesota River basin.

By Liz Morrison
The river was born in a magnificent cataclysm at the end of the Pleistocene Epoch. Within days, floodwaters carved a 335-mile channel across the ice-scoured landscape, draining 10 million acres of rich glacial soil.

For the next 10,000 years, the river basin supported an intricate ecosystem of tall grasses and large herbivores, adapted to the region's harsh, continental climate.

Then, little more than a century ago, that ecosystem changed forever.

Vast reaches of prairie grass, huge herds of bison, numberless wetlands that spangled the valley like sequins-all vanished. European settlers began farming the fertile watershed, creating one of the most productive agricultural regions on earth.

This is the Minnesota river watershed, stretching from Browns Valley southeast to Iowa, traversing the most intensively farmed area of the state. It's cut by a slow brown prairie river that some say is one to the most polluted waterways in America.

Now, the story of the Minnesota River and the people who farm near it will be presented in a new television documentary.

Minnesota: Rivers and Fields, produced at the University of Minnesota, Morris, will air on Pioneer Public Television beginning in February. The 13-part series explores the profound changed agriculture has brought to the river basins environment, culture, and economy.

Broad scope
The show's scope is huge, spanning 10,000 years of natural history, says UMM physicist Gordon McIntosh of Morris, one of the creators of the series. It begins with the formation of the Minnesota River basin in glacial times, then moves on to investigate the character of the soils and topography, weather, and water resources of the region.

The show's social scope is equally broad, tracing the cultures of native people in the river basin, European exploration and settlement, the breaking of the prairie, the growth of farming, and the rise of large-scale, mechanized agriculture.

Uniting all these diverse elements is the Minnesota River, whose opaque waters reflect the complex interplay of natural environment and human endeavor.

"We're an agricultural region because our soil is fertile," McIntosh says. But the rich land is poorly drained and floods readily: to grow crops, farmers must drain their fields. "And that has affected the river," which now carries a burden of sediment, pesticides, and fertilizers washed through a network of field tiles and drainage ditches. "The Minnesota River defines or area and our agriculture," McIntosh says. "We want to show why agriculture here developed as it did. Our hope is that the series will put the present situation into historical context."

Vanished Prairie
McIntosh, 46, spent the first part of his scientific career looking up at the sky as a radio astronomer. After he joined the faculty at UMM in 1992, he began looking for local research projects, too, and in 1994, he changed directions " 180 degrees. Instead of looking up, now I'm looking down."

McIntosh, who grew up in Ohio where his family had a small commercial strawberry farm, began investigating the movement of heat and water in soil. "I started reading about the history of soils in this region, and I thought it was very interesting."

About the same time, McIntosh's two children were learning about the disappearance of tropical rain forests. It struck him as ironic that local schoolchildren were studying environmental threats half a hemisphere away, yet knew little about the original tall grass prairie-"one of the most decimated ecosystems in the world."

So in 1997, McIntosh, along with others in education and agriculture, set out to tell the story of the vanished prairie and the river that runs through it.

A story in pictures
This past October, Mike Cihak of Morris found himself hanging out the open door of a helicopter, bouncing in the strong winds that sweep the Minnesota River valley. The same month, he stood on a flatbed truck, surrounded by a herd of 60 edgy buffalo panting like freight trains.

Cihak, an avid award-winning cameraman, is part of the team that produced Minnesota: Rivers and Fields.

Others on the team include UMM Media Services Director Roger Boleman, who oversaw production; scriptwriter Kathryn Gonier; University College teacher Polly Fry; West Central Outreach and Research Center Director Gary Lemme; AURI manager Mike Sparby; and UMM student Philip Drown.

Tom Mahoney, UMM grants developer, helped obtain funds for the $250,000 project, which is supported by grants from the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, Farmers Union, AURI, Otter Tail Power Company, Land Stewardship Project, and the Kellogg Foundation.

To tell the story of the river basin, the team interviewed a host of scientist, historians, and ag experts. They also spoke with farmers and ag industry leaders from around the state, including former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Bob Bergland, who introduces each 30-minute segment of the show.

The team filmed dozens of sites along the Minnesota River and its tributaries, capturing the diversity and natural beauty of the region. "We pulled out the map and tried to get a good cross section of the valley," says Cihak, who went up in a helicopter to show the river meandering through a brown and green patchwork of fields. Finding good shots was one of the best parts of making this documentary, says Cihak, 29, who grew up on a grain farm near Barnesville. " I like going off on the back roads, and riding around the countryside finding treasures from the past."

Among the locations Cihak and the team filmed for the series:
-Big Stone Lake, the southern outlet of extinct Lake Agassiz, and the source of the Minnesota River.
-The Jeffers Petroglyphs in Cottonwood County, site of over 2,000 rock carvings, some of them nearly 5,000 years old.
-Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge near Odessa, one of the few remnants of virgin prairie in Minnesota, and a nesting ground for the prairie chicken.
-Pipestone, where for thousands of years, native people mined red rock for peace pipes.
-The Pine City fur post, an original wintering post set up by the Northwest Fur Company to trade with the Ojibwe people.
-A native grassland near Starbuck, where the team filmed the burning of the prairie.
-Blue Mounds State Park near Luverne, where they ventured into the bison paddock. "The day we filmed," McIntosh recalls, "Bull Number Five had gored Bull Number Six," and cameraman Mike Cihak, perched on the pickup, had instructions to roll under the truck if a buffalo jumped onto the flatbed.

Pace of change
The documentary also incorporated hundreds of photos from the archives of the Minnesota Historical Society. These images give a picture of farming in the river basin over the past 100 years and chart the astonishing pace of agricultural change.

The extent of this change was a real eye-opener for Gonier, a teacher at UMM, who wrote the script for the documentary. Like most Minnesotans-and most Americans-she knew little about how food is produced. Even the vocabulary of modern, high-tech farming was foreign. "I had no idea what Roundup Ready soybeans were, or GMOs, or GPS."

That turned out to be an advantage in writing for a general audience, though, says Gonier, 29, who grew up in Minneapolis, but always wanted to live in a rural area. "I think I was typical of most people, who don't know anything about agriculture. So I didn't make assumptions about what the audience would know."

The great tension
Roger Boleman, 55, producer of the series, grew up on a small dairy farm near the St. Croix River. When he was a chilled, the river was an important part of his life. "I've always had an infatuation with rivers," he says.

In October, Boleman took a flat-bottomed boat down a stretch of the Minnesota River near Montevideo. The trees were in full autumn splendor, and the river was serene and beautiful. At the same time, he reports, low water had exposed heavy accumulations of silt-the result of sedimentation from agricultural drainage systems. Boleman, like others, asked himself: "What was the river really like 100 years ago?"

This question goes to the heart of the river basin's fate. "Of course, we could have a pristine environment-with no people in it," McIntosh says. "We have to figure out a way to have both productive agriculture and a well-kept environment. This is the great tension."

A basis for public debate
Minnesota: Rivers and Fields raise other difficult questions, too, McIntosh says. For example:
-What should be done to rehabilitate the river and its tributaries?
-How should farm drainage systems and other sources of river pollution be controlled?
-How will technological and genetic advances in agriculture affect the river?

These and other issues will be explored in public discussions before a live audience, following three of the broadcasts.

"We hope the series will provide well-balanced information" for a civic debate about "how people want to see the region develop," McIntosh says.

Adds Boleman: "The Minnesota River is a treasure in our back yard that we take for granted."