‘Active, energetic’ year: PPF stands out for work to improve water quality

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By Lee Reinsch for Peninsula Pride Farms

LUXEMBURG, Wis. — Don Niles would’ve understood if the third year of the region’s farmer-led conservation group had been slow going in the quest to improve water quality.

After all, dairy farmers are trying to manage with painfully low milk prices that are hitting bottom lines hard.

But that wasn’t the case.

“We’re very proud we had an active, energetic year despite the overall difficulties in the dairy economy right now. Members have been more than willing to step in and help with several research projects,” said Niles, president of Peninsula Pride Farms who farms in Casco.

Today, PPF consists of 54 farms whose land and cows account for 50 percent of the farmland and 50 percent of cows in Kewaunee and southern Door counties. That’s significant, and it comes from a shared belief in the purpose of the organization, Niles said.

“We’re a group that’s unified with the same vision: We’re convinced that we can have clean, healthy, safe drinking water and a thriving agricultural community here on the Door County peninsula all at the same time, and we aim to prove with our actions and our results that that’s achievable,” he said.

Demonstration farms

Farmers collaborating in small group discussions.

The Door-Kewaunee Watershed Demonstration Farm Network, which started two years ago, continues to build momentum. It’s a lot of work for the member farms and agronomy advisers, but the program has produced important information on what’s working and what isn’t, Niles said. The organizers use text alerts to announce flash field days — where farmers show up for short demonstrations on brief notice.

The use of cover crops has become a key focus of the farmers’ efforts because of the crops’ value in enriching the soil, preventing runoff to surface waters and protecting ground water.

Wayne Bradley, who farms on the Kewaunee/Manitowoc county line, is proactive by using cover crops and low-disturbance manure applications.

“We realize we have water issues here, and that’s why cover crops can help. And we have to be careful managing our manure,” he said.

All four demonstration farms are using cover crops, but each is doing them slightly differently through seed varieties, planting regimens or no-till planting.

“The nice thing about a large, collaborative group like ours is we can have 50 members each trying two or three different things, so not each of us has to try everything, but we can compare notes and see what worked for certain conditions,” Niles said. “As a group, we can learn from that and improve our own practices for the next year. It’s a great benefit.”

Niles said PPF has expanded the cost share beyond cover crops to include split nitrogen applications, harvestable buffer areas around sinkholes and measuring depth-to-bedrock levels on potentially shallow soils.

PPF getting things done

Rachel Rushmann, nutrient management coordinator with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, manages the demonstration farm network and a farmer-led watershed grant program that helps groups like Peninsula Pride Farms get started. She said PPF is one of the leaders in the state and among the best at getting things done.

The grant program, which started in 2016, made $750,000 available for this year. It takes at least five farmers to form a group.

“Groups are led by farmers and are completely dependent upon farmer-to-farmer outreach and education,” Rushmann said.

The program has been effective due to diverse partnerships, shared goals and collaboration. PPF has partnered with The Nature Conservancy and Dairy Strong Sustainability Alliance, for example.

“There’s been great diversity in projects, and some unlikely partnerships, too. There are groups working with lake property owners and associations,” Rushmann said. “With more partners comes more resources and the ability to get things done.”

People agree they want clean water, and instead of pointing fingers, they’re working together, she said.

“This program has facilitated those conversations and has helped get more conservation on the ground. People are learning from each other, and that’s a huge reason why these groups are successful.”

Rushmann said the grant program ties in with the priorities DATCP’s newly appointed leader, Brad Pfaff, is setting for the agency, including supporting the state’s farm economy, safe drinking water and improved surface water quality. “That can be done through water-quality monitoring, nutrient management, and land and water conservation plans,” she said.

‘We want farmers involved’

In January, early results of a study of wells in southwestern Wisconsin showed contamination (although it’s too early to pinpoint sources and causes). Knowing the issues faced by state Rep. Joel Kitchens’ constituents in northeastern Wisconsin, his contacts in the southwestern part of the state asked him what they should do.

Not surprisingly, he didn’t have a magic answer. Different regions of the state have different topography, so solutions have to be tailored to the regions, he said. There is not a one-size-fits-all fix. Counties and local groups have to be involved, as do farmers, he said.

“Anything we come up with, we want the farmers to be involved,” Kitchens said.

One thing to watch for: Kitchens said that the TMDL (total maximum daily load) study on rivers and waterways in Door, Kewaunee, Manitowoc and Sheboygan counties will be done around November.

“I think that’s going to be a big opportunity for farmers to take advantage of federal grants to address that,” he said.

Signs of the times

Nathan Nysse, a PPF board member and independent crop adviser with Tilth Agronomy Group in Hortonville, updated the group on a way to let people know about some of the positive efforts farmers are undertaking.

It involves technology — yet it’s simple, too.

It is a set of signs that farmers can place along the edge of their fields. Each sign is embedded with a QR code that can be customized.

“We can design it to tell a little story about the farm, the cover-crop concept, the buffering process or whatever we’re doing in this specific field,” Nysse said. “It gives more information to the individual walking by. We’re really good at doing our jobs, but we’re not good at broadcasting what we’re doing. So, this is an attempt to put some hardware out there to show what we’re up to.”