By Jamie Mara for PPF
Residents, environmental groups, lawmakers, businesses, consumer organizations and others have taken notice of the farmer-led group’s efforts to protect water quality in Kewaunee and southern Door counties.
The awareness rose to a new level Oct. 7 when PPF was featured on a global stage. Don Niles, PPF’s president, was a speaker at The Wall Street Journal Global Food Forum in New York City. He appeared among leaders from Cargill, McDonald’s, U.S. Department of Agriculture, World Bank and others.
Niles sat on a panel alongside Suzy Friedman, who is senior director of agricultural sustainability for the Environmental Defense Fund. The group is one of the world’s largest environmental organizations, with 2.5 million members and a staff of 700 scientists, economists, policy experts and other professionals.
This was an opportunity for Niles to explain PPF’s mission and the innovative and collaborative spirit of the group’s members.
Here is a portion of the discussion from the forum edited for brevity and clarity:
Topic: How dairy farmers can improve water quality.
Niles: We’re doing things such as putting in methane digesters, where they’re feasible, to reduce the pathogen level in the manure. We also find fairly simple practices by doing our own research. One is that if we apply manure on a sunny day, the UV rays from the sun are going to break down almost all the bacteria. The traditional practice had been to inject the manure deep into the soil to prevent surface runoff, which is also a goal of ours, but if we put that on the surface on a sunny day, we kill the bacteria and then work it in the next day; we get a double benefit. That’s the kind of innovative thinking we’re trying to put in place.
Friedman: It’s going to depend on what the situation is on that farm and the combination of practices that is going to deliver the good quality water. It’s also important to have metrics for a farmer to be able to
assess what’s working and being able to track the outcomes, how this is working for the bottom line, what is going to work best for an individual farm. And — this is one of the exciting things I’ve learned about what Peninsula Pride Farms is doing — what’s working for that watershed, because one farm in isolation can be doing a great job, but if it’s not supported by other activities in that watershed, there can still be difficulty delivering water quality.
Topic: How water quality challenges differ between small and large farms.
Friedman: When you’re larger, there is more to manage. But often also with size comes added resources and labor to be able to have technology and additional expertise around management. So, size isn’t going to determine if are you a good manager or not a good manager. But size can sometimes open up opportunities. Sometimes you like to think that smaller is better, bigger is not. But it all comes down to m
Niles: Surely any technological upgrades that we make — a methane digester or new water separation technology, for example — those are quite expensive. Our farmer-led group is made up of both large and small farms, crop and dairy farms. What we’re finding is the advantage of working together can supersede any of those individual advantages by combining our efforts. We have 50 of us working together, so five of us can try one procedure and five can try another, and then we combine our results and data and can work for the betterment of all sizes.
Topic: The sustainability challenge in water use for the dairy industry.
Friedman: The biggest challenge is finding ways that we can have clean water, a stable climate, enough water and still have viable dairy farms, because we need both. We need to be able to eat, we want to be able to have milk and we need to be able to have those environmental outcomes. That’s a real challenge these days. We’re facing an agricultural economy that is pretty stressed. So, digging in to fin
d ways that conservation can bring economic return is really important.
Topic: The challenge of bringing farmers together for a group initiative.
Niles: We found ourselves in a conflict. We had a group of environmentalists that were saying things about dairy production, and dairy farmers saying it was all about the septic systems. Eighty percent of the people in the county were sick of it. They want the farms to be there, but they don’t want us to mess up the environment. That’s pretty reasonable. So, we got together as a group of farmers and said we think that we can find better ways to do what we’ve been doing. We think if we work together we will make faster progress because we’ll learn from each other. We decided that we were going to take on this challenge.
Topic: How to create more progress in protecting water quality.
Friedman: I think there’s still a lot of opportunities for initiatives like Peninsula Pride Farms to help achieve water quality goals. I think that there’s a lot of progress that’s been made. There’s still a long way to go in regions like the Chesapeake Bay and the Upper Midwest where we’ve still got some pretty severe water quality challenges. And we need initiatives like PPF, but we also need local, state and federal policies to really support initiatives like this.
Topic: Whether smaller farms can remain productive.
Niles: There are certainly successful dairies out there with 40 cows. There are unsuccessful dairies with thousands of cows. One is not a guarantee. I think that the key is that the only system that doesn’t work properly — no matter what size farm or business model — is to try to do exactly what you’ve done for the last 20 years, for the next 20 years. That’s not sustainable.