Brad Carlson interacting with a farmer

Past, Present, and Future of Nitrogen Smart Education

Headshot of Brad Carlson
Brad Carlson

On October 1st, Brad Carlson begins his 30th year working for the University of Minnesota Extension. The Extension Educator, who works statewide from the Mankato Regional Office, focuses on water quality issues related to agriculture, and more specifically, nitrates. His path to where he is today was relatively straightforward, growing up on a small farm in Southern Minnesota, where he enjoyed being outdoors for whatever the season dictated. “Hunting, fishing, trapping, bird watching, mushroom hunting, you name it, I tried it,” he says. Carlson attended the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point, where he received a B.S. in Soil Science, then moved on to the University of Minnesota where he obtained an M.S. in Soil Science with a minor in Agronomy. His area of study at the University of Minnesota was Soil Physics/Environmental Biophysics, where he looked at nitrate leaching following fertigation of potatoes. 

He began his career in a local position based in Rice County, then Rice and Steele, moving to his current state-wide position in 2011. “I have always worked at the intersection between agriculture and the environment,” says Carlson. In the early years, a lot of his focus was on the environmental impacts of livestock facilities and manure management. “That is where I was shoved into the deep end of the pool, so to speak, with the politics of environmental issues,” he reflects. “You discover that people don’t always listen to the science when they have some social, financial, or political objective in mind. You learn real quickly that you won’t be effective as an educator unless you figure out where your audience stands, and customize your message so as not to pit them against you.” 

Brad Carlson interacting with a farmer
Carlson interacts with a farmer at harvest time

In his current position, Carlson has forged a partnership between the Minnesota Corn Growers Association/Minnesota Corn Research and Promotion Council and Extension. “They understand that water quality issues are a serious challenge to the industry and that if they don’t address them in a way that works for them, someone will dictate a solution that they don’t like.” The Nitrogen Smart educational program was created eight years ago by Carlson and his coworkers to address the challenges of reducing nitrate concentration in surface and groundwater. Over the years well over 1000 have attended voluntarily to learn how nitrogen behaves in the environment, and how to best manage based on conditions (soil, climatic, economic, environmental). Follow-up surveys have shown that 30% of farmer attendees have voluntarily reduced their application rate by an average of 25 lbs/acre. Carlson stresses that they don’t tell farmers to reduce their rates. They present information that helps the farmer determine what the correct rate is for their situation, and they report the reductions a full six months after they attend. “The fact that we don’t survey ‘intentions’ on their way out the door, but ask them months later, indicates that the education they received stuck,” Carlson explains. 

Over the years the program has evolved to include online training and several “advanced” sessions. Carlson says that the future of the program is to chop the information up for delivery via podcasts, videos, and through social media. “Our audience is changing, and we need to adapt to the way they receive information,” he says, acknowledging that determining outcomes for information delivered in this way will be a challenge. “It’s where we’re headed, so I guess we’ll just have to figure it out. We always have in the past.” Find more information on the Nitrogen Smart program at: 

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