Farmer-led watershed groups pick up steam

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No one knows the struggles, hardships and challenges that crop up daily on the farm better than farmers.

That’s why the number of farmer-led watershed conservation groups in the state is growing. They share a common goal — to protect the precious soil and water in the Badger State for their communities, themselves and future generations. Peninsula Pride Farms is among those that have made the most progress. Founded in 2016, the group represents crop and dairy farms in Kewaunee and southern Door counties.

Kewaunee County’s high cow density, along with the area’s unique karst geology, can create environmental  issues because fertilizers have a better
chance of seeping into groundwater.

“We want to not only use the best management practices while adhering to the law, of course, but to go above and beyond the requirements to protect ground and surface water,” said PPF President Don Niles, who is also a partner in Dairy Dreams in Casco.

Among other things, the group is conducting research on how nitrogen and pathogens move through the soil.

“Bacteria is a concern here with the shallow ground, so we’re identifying the best management practices, some simple and some elaborate,” Niles said. “The whole idea is to look beyond solutions that have been tried already and find new, innovative things we can do.”

The group started cost-share programs to persuade farmers to use cover crops and plant harvestable buffer areas around sinkholes. PPF also offers cost-share dollars for the split application of nitrogen and assists farmers with soil depth verification.

In addition, the group started a Water Well program to assist families dealing with E. coli well contamination — regardless of whether the source is agricultural practices or septic systems.
Here are three other watershed groups that stand out in Wisconsin:

Lafayette Ag Stewardship Alliance
Formed in 2017, Lafayette Ag Stewardship Alliance (LASA) empowers more farmers to use sustainable agricultural practices in Lafayette County.
“We looked first at water quality because we want everyone to enjoy good, clean water,” said Jim Winn, a dairy farmer from South Wayne and LASA’s leader.
“We started to educate our farmers on different practices that other farmers in the state were having success with.”

LASA provides a cost-share program for cover crops. And, the group hosts educational events and offers agricultural and conservation opportunities for farmers and community members. Winn feels it is vital for the two groups to connect and collaborate.

“We want to show the community that we are in this together,” Winn said. “Everyone has a part in this and we want to show that farmers care about our environment and the land.”

Yahara Pride Farms
Yahara Pride Farms (YPF) was created in 2011 to protect Dane County’s land and water. Financial incentives are offered for cover crops and other prac-tices such as strip tillage and low-disturbance manure injections.

The group’s certification program recognizes farmers for their stewardship efforts. To become certified, farmers or operators must receive 80 percent on an evaluation of facilities, soil and crops. The farmers receive discounts on services, products and equipment that ensure good agricultural practices.

YPF documents things such as the change in water quality, or water or soil leaving the farm.

“The key to any water quality issue is knowing where you are at, and where you need to move to,” said Jeff Endres, president of Yahara Pride Farms and a partner in Endres Berryridge Farms in Waunakee.

Western Wisconsin Conservation Council
The St. Croix County Board of Supervisors’ launch of a water quality study group in January 2017 was a major factor in the creation of the Western Wisconsin Conservation
Council that year.

Among the study group’s recommendations were to increase the number of acres enrolled in nutrient management plans and to develop a well-testing program.
“We feel that farmers are really good conservationists,” said WWCC president Todd Doornink, who is also a partner in Jon-De Farm, a dairy farm in Baldwin.

“Our family has been doing it for 100 years, but we have never recorded any data on conservation efforts. All we’re asking is that farmers start recording things. Our main goal is to just get better each year.”

The council’s most significant accomplishment has been a collaborative effort with the University of Wisconsin-River Falls to test members’ wells for high nitrate levels four times a year. The UW-River Falls team also performs soil tests on members’ land.

“We’ve been able to establish a database for our members, and that information is a baseline for us,” Doornink said.