DARLINGTON — When a few Lafayette County farmers sat down at a table to talk about forming an organization to promote conservation practices that can make a difference, they had a few simple goals in mind.
Jim Winn, chairman of the newly formed Lafayette Ag Stewardship Alliance, said the farmers wanted to let others know they are concerned about their community and that farmers want to do the right thing.
“We want to show our community we’re doing our part and we think this is a great way to start,” Winn said Aug. 29 during a news conference to introduce the organization just prior to the group’s first field day.
“We don’t want to deal with issues that happen, we want to prevent them,” said Steve Carpenter, vice chairman of the group and a dairy farmer from Darlington.
Lafayette County farmers face issues with karst topography, much like farmers in Kewaunee County, where water quality problems have been in the news. The farmers who came together to form the Lafayette Ag Stewardship Alliance said they want to get ahead of potential problems, understand more about how karst topography affects water quality and do their part to protect the county’s natural resources.
Organizers said LASA will identify and promote conservation practices that demonstrate continuous improvement in farming methods that protect water quality. In its early stages, the group has 16 members representing 23,000 livestock and 56,000 acres of farmland. Members include small and large farms that are organic and conventional, crop farmers, beef farmers, dairy farmers and a hog farmer.
The organization will tap into university research and scientists to set benchmarks in conservation practices and measure progress, Winn and Carpenter said.
“We want to lead by example,” Carpenter said. “We want to hold ourselves accountable and support each other. This isn’t about one person against another, but we we need to hold farmers to some type of accountability.”
Winn said organizers are looking for more members to join the group, but they aren’t just going to take all comers without some scrutiny.
“We’re not just going to have everybody in our area join our group, stick a LASA sign in their driveway and say, ‘I’m a member of LASA, I’m doing everything right,’ ” Winn said. “For future members, we’re probably going to have them turn their nutrient management plan over to (LASA adviser) Dennis Frame, have him look it over, and if things look good, then we’re going to have to approve members to join.”
Frame, the former director of Wisconsin’s Discovery Farms program and now a consultant for several conservation groups, said in his work with the Yahara Pride and Peninsula Pride organizations, they have been able to develop a baseline of data and measure improvement. After the preliminary data is collected, he can work with farmers to identify ways they can improve.
“(With Yahara Pride and Peninsula Pride), we got to sit down at the table with those guys and say, ‘Here are some fields you can work on, here are some fields you’re doing excellent on,’ and help them set priorities,” Frame said. “You have to let people know how they are relating to their neighbors and what they could do better.”
Frame said it has become obvious to him over the years that every farm is unique and every farmer is unique.
“When I was at the university, I heard that cover crops are the answer or low-disturbance manure is the answer,” he said. “One thing we learned at Discovery Farms is there is no ‘the answer.’ We need to know what every farmer holds important and personally, and help them identify their strengths and weaknesses and correct their weaknesses. Help them prioritize what they should be improving.”
Winn said the group has a membership fee of $500 for farms with more than 500 acres or 500 cows, and a $100 fee for farmers with fewer acres or cows. A sliding fee scale is also available for local businesses that want to sponsor the group.
The organization received a grant from the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin Foundation to get started and will be seeking funding from the state’s Producer-Led Watershed Grant Program, Winn said.
Carpenter said his farm and three other farms take turns hosting a “Day at the Dairy” every May, at which about 375 Lafayette County fourth graders learn what farming is all about.
“We are educating our kids, but I’m hoping with LASA we can start educating some of the older members of our community, myself included, what protecting our natural resources is all about and how we need to work together,” he said.
Carpenter said as LASA board members were creating a mission statement, they threw a bunch of ideas on the table to try to create what is right for Lafayette County.
“When it got done, I think the message in the end was we want clean water,” Carpenter said. “That’s really what it comes down to.”
The Nature Conservancy is a participating sponsor in the organization, and Steve Richter, director of conservation programs for TNC in Wisconsin, said he sees TNC’s role as listening and determining where the group can make a difference and help.
“I’m so excited that farmers are taking the initiative here and elsewhere to demonstrate that we can really all work together on these challenges,” Richter said. “I’m looking forward to seeing where such projects will take us.”
Dennis Busch, research manager at UW-Platteville’s Pioneer Farm, said he sees synergies between the farmer-driven research taking place on Pioneer Farm and what farmers are doing in Lafayette County. Research at Pioneer Farm during the past 10 years has been focusing on testing which farming practices make the biggest difference in water quality, so the goals of the university and LASA are similar.
Winn said LASA organizers are planning to hold field days in the spring and fall and an annual meeting in February. The group currently has six board members and two advisory members.