MADISON — Wisconsin’s Producer-Led Watershed Protection Grant Program has been bringing farmers together to work on conservation problems for two years, and the farmers involved in those programs join with their neighbors in these groups for a variety of reasons, some of those involved said here Aug. 2.
That was a general consensus of a workshop during the Wisconsin Soil and Water Conservation Society annual conference at the Monona Terrace. The workshop on the grant program was one of dozens held during the four-day event.
Representatives of four of the groups that have received grants offered their perspectives on what they are gaining by joining with other farmers to address conservation problems in their communities.
The goal of the voluntary program is to improve water quality by preventing or reducing runoff pollution from farmyards and fields. A total of $250,000 is available annually as part of the program, with each grant capped at $20,000.
So far, about $440,000 has been awarded to 15 producer groups during two grant cycles. Some of the money has been used for group startup costs, some for demonstration projects, some for outreach and education events, and some to provide financial incentives for farmers to implement conservation measures on their farms.
The groups are required to collaborate with a county or state agency or a nonprofit conservation organization. Each group must contribute or find matching funds to at least equal its grant request.
Perhaps the best known of the early producer groups has been the Yahara Pride Farms Watershed Group. The group was organized before the grant program got underway, and since 2013, farmers involved in the organization have installed more than 15,000 acres of conservation practices focusing on cover crops, low-disturbance manure injection and strip tillage.
Yahara Pride Farms President Jeff Endres encouraged farmers who might be considering forming a watershed group to “concentrate on key issues” when putting the group together.
“Don’t try to do too much,” he said. The Yahara Pride group focused on the amount of phosphorus leaving the farm fields and entering surface water in the watershed.
Endres said farmers are not just participating in the program because there are financial incentives for doing so.
“Farmers have a lot of money invested in this watershed — they’re part of it — they want to do the right thing,” he said.
“A lot of farmers farm because they don’t want everybody else telling them what to do, but at the same time, don’t kid yourself, they’re looking over the fence and watching what others are doing,” he said.
Yahara Pride’s goal has been to “build farmers up, not tear them apart,” he said.
“There is not a farmer out there that is doing everything wrong,” he said. “If you build them up they will want to be a part of what’s going on.”
Don Niles, a Kewaunee County dairy farmer and a participant in the Peninsula Pride Watershed Group, said the organization has “shamelessly borrowed” from Yahara Pride, using some of their ideas to get the northeast Wisconsin group off the ground. The group has about 40 farmer members in Kewaunee and Door counties.
Kewaunee County has a high concentration of dairy cows, Niles said, but farmers there have to justify why so many cows are concentrated in a small area.
“Sometimes we have to modify what we’re doing when we’re farming on shallow bedrock,” he said. The organization is focusing on “measurable goals” that will show whether farmers there are going in the right direction.
The watershed group’s 50 members have anywhere from 60 to 6,000 cows and represent about 50 percent of the cows and tillable acres in the area, he said. The organization’s primary focus is on improving soil health and reducing phosphorus loss from farm fields.
“We want to understand what we’re doing above ground and how it could affect what is happening 2 feet below ground,” he said.
Michael Dolan, a farmer from Spring Green and president of Iowa County’s Uplands Watershed Group, said the biggest problem in the unglaciated area of southwest Wisconsin is soil and nutrients that run down slopes and into rivers and streams.
The group set an early goal of increasing cover crop acreage by 250 acres on the 15 members’ farms, and to protect streams against livestock damage, Dolan said.
Members also connected with fishers, shrimpers and crabbers in Louisiana who are directly impacted by what goes into the water in the Upper Midwest and flows all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.
“We found there are similarities between farmers in Wisconsin and fishermen in Louisiana,” Dolan said. “There are not too many young people getting into either occupation and there is not much money being made.”
Dolan purchased a no-till drill and is renting it out to other members of the watershed group to increase the number of cover crops on land within the watershed.
Portage County Extension Agent Ken Schroeder said he has been working with the Farmers of Mill Creek Watershed Project in the Marshfield to Stevens Point region. The watershed group has held field days to educate farmers in the group and others about best management practices to keep phosphorus on the land rather than flowing into surface water.
“Farmers by nature are problem solvers,” Schroeder said. “When you get them together they will get something done.”
Farmers in the group have “taken responsibility for what’s happened in the watershed,” he said, and are looking for ways to reduce water pollution.
“We’ve got a start,” Schroeder said of the young organization. “It’s all about generating buy-in from the farmers.”
For more information on Wisconsin’s Producer-Led Watershed Protection Grant Program, contact Rachel Rushmann at 608-224-4622 or email@example.com.