The gears driving the Wadena Soil and Water Conservation District began to synchronize last week.

It was soil and water strategy the group was talking as they looked ahead to their work in the coming year during a day-long session at the Maslowski Wellness and Research Center.

"This is something we have been trying to do every year," District Manager Darren Newville said. "It's really trying to figure out what our priorities are going to be."

Newville and his SWCD staff were able to huddle with five board members and some SWCD partners, including the Natural Resources Conservation Service and reps from the Wadena County Board of Commissioners and the Board of Water Resources.

One of this year's highest priority targets is soil health.

"I like to call it soil quality," said Board Chairman Tom Schulz, a retired farmer living in North Germany Township.

Education outreach is one of the ideas the group will be pursuing on the trail of soil health. Newville said the group will be reaching out in different ways to different people - youth, farmers, the general non-farming public and absentee landowners.

Schulz smiled when he explained how absentee owners are usually identified by staff members seeking to reach them.

"We can always tell who the absentee landowners are because they have gates on their property," Schulz said. "It creates a lot of problems with our staff in that the absentee landowners are typically with their property on weekends and our staff is working weekdays," Schulz said.

Another priority was forestry. About a third of the 543 square mile Wadena County is forested.

"We continue to do forest practices because that does protect soil quality and water quality," Newville said.

Schulz pointed out the forest industry is highly important to Wadena County.

"You are going to see logging trucks, you are going to see equipment out there doing forestry practices on the land," Schultz said.

Newville said water management and irrigation was a third priority for the group. The need to monitor groundwater in Wadena County is high because the water table tends to be high and quicker to pick up pollutants.

"In general we do have a high water table in the sand aquifers we have," Newville said.

The Department of Agriculture has found there are high nitrate levels in agricultural areas because some farmers use nitrogen for crop production. They have tested wells in the Wadena area with the help of the SWCD and found some elevated levels of nitrates in the water.

Farmers can be responsible for some of the pollution but they are not alone. Inadequate sewage systems can also be a source. Farmers also have to balance economic returns with environmental concerns. Newville has found that telling a farmer he is the cause of a groundwater contamination problem can be tricky. Because groundwater cleans up slowly, a contamination problem in certain cases may have its roots in farming practices on the land 30 years earlier.

"Farmers are, I would consider, conservationists," Newville said. "They don't want polluted water any more than anyone else. They are adopting technologies and practices today that are probably some of the best practices that we could use for protecting our groundwater."

In addition to the quality of water, the SWCD is interested in the quantity. Schulz had observed that in a typical year Wadena County gets an adequate amount of rain to grow a crop.

"The problem is that it doesn't come timely," Schulz said. "We need to pump it back up and get it on (the crop) on a timely basis."