For dairy farmer Tom Zwald, the farmland of St. Croix County isn’t just where he makes his living; it’s also where he lives and raises his family.
“We run our large tract of land and we want to do everything we can ... for future generations to conserve and make sure that it’s healthy and productive for years to come,” he said.
That’s why Zwald wanted to get in on the ground floor of the new Western Wisconsin Conservation Council, a nonprofit organization led by local farmers and focused on protecting the region’s watersheds and the way of life and commerce they support. Zwald serves on the WWCC board of directors, along with president Todd Doornink, Greg Friendshuh, Chris van Someren, John Vrieze and Justen Walton.
All area farmers are invited to attend the council’s New and Prospective Member Meeting at 3 p.m. Tuesday, April 3, at the Compeer Financial office just off I-94 in Baldwin.
Zwald, who milks 700 cows and runs about 2,000 acres as part of Bomaz Farms near Hammond, said this farmer-led watershed council is unique in that it will not be limited to one watershed but will include all area watersheds, including those for the St. Croix and Kinnickinnic rivers.
“We didn’t want to be exclusive,” he said. “If we limit it to one watershed, it limits the membership and limits it to one field that happens to be in the watershed. We’re focused on improving and sustaining our farmers, not just specific to one field. Getting everyone at the table is what we’re striving for.”
Zwald said concerns have cropped up over the past year and a half about some agricultural practices being used in the area, and there’s a lot of misinformation being circulated. Farmers want to be better, more transparent neighbors, he said.
“We view the council as a way that we can be forthcoming about what we do,” he said. “We view the council as a way to showcase the best management practices we’re looking at doing and as a way to judge (our progress) over time.”
Leslie Svacina, who farms near Deer Park, sat on the St. Croix County Board of Supervisors’ water quality study group formed a little more than a year ago, which led to formation of the WWCC. The study group, which first met in January 2017, was a compromise to the board acting on a proposed moratorium ordinance on establishment and expansion of large livestock operations.
The study group, focused on providing board members with science-based recommendations for policies that protect groundwater quality, met for educational presentations and facilitated discussion on topics such as groundwater hydrology and modeling, nutrient management, and legal aspects of livestock siting. Their work wrapped up last fall with presentation of their recommendations to the board.
The study group’s core recommendations to the board included exploring options regarding regulation of livestock operations and licensing for facility siting for ongoing monitoring of farms for the purpose of protecting water resources; increasing the number of acres enrolled in nutrient management plans; revising county land use policy and zoning ordinances to protect groundwater resources; developing a county protocol for urgent response to actual or potential water resource pollution events that threaten human health, the environment or natural resources; developing a scientifically sound drinking water well testing protecting to create baseline data to measure drinking water quality over time; identifying and mapping environmentally sensitive areas and conduits to groundwater; developing a plan with cost estimates to constructing another inset model for areas of interest and concern; and establishing an active water-quality committee to ensure that the protection of ground and surface water continues to be a priority addressed by the county.
That’s where the WWCC comes in, bringing “like-minded farmers” together to take action before problems develop. According to a membership recruitment letter, urban and industrial expansion and “out-of-date or careless” farming practices threaten area waterways, which could undermine agriculture’s reputation or result in the expansion of “unreasonable” regulation.
While the council, which already is well on its way of reaching its goal to sign up 30 farmers this first year, Zwald said, initially will be focused on farmers and the sharing of practices that work, efforts likely will broaden after that to communicate their progress with the community at large.
There is no cost to join the council, but members must agree to three conditions — to allow a team from UW-River Falls to conduct confidential well and soil tests on their property four times a year, to complete a written questionnaire about best land/water-use practices in use on their property once per year and to participate in council meetings once or twice each year.
While free well and soil testing should be enough incentive for most farmers to join, organizers say, they believe the true benefit of the council will be the community spirit and farmer networking it helps foster.
If you go
What: Western Wisconsin Conservation Council New and Prospective Member Meeting.
When: Tuesday, April 3, 3 p.m.
Where: Compeer Financial office, 540 Baldwin Plaza Drive, Baldwin.
Information: Chris van Someren, 715-684-2418 or firstname.lastname@example.org.