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Fostering Sustainable Agriculture through Research, Education and Policy since 1984

Fishermen and farmers discuss common interests over fantastic seafood

Michael Fields’ Policy Director, Margaret Krome, describes below a creative – and delicious – cultural exchange and educational opportunity that MFAI organized last month. We brought fishermen from Louisiana’s Bayou up to celebrate the importance of on-farm conservation with the farmer-led watershed we’re working closely with in Iowa County. The fishermen’s livelihoods and lives depend on having clean water feeding the Gulf of Mexico, and that in turn depends on the commitments made by farmers just like those in Iowa County’s Trout Creek-Mill Creek watershed. Watch the Mississippi River Connection Video here!

For shrimp lovers, something about eating a fisherman’s perfectly cooked, succulent shrimp inspires a special interest in his or her life. And that’s exactly what happened last week when three families of fishermen came up to southwest Wisconsin and treated several dozen Wisconsinites to some amazing seafood.

Farm nutrients aren’t the perfect condiment for a seafood dinner, but they were sprinkled through the dinner discussion. The fact that nutrients from farms in the Upper Midwest flow down the Mississippi River and create algal blooms that deoxygenate large “Dead Zone” areas in the Gulf is well understood. Since the Mississippi River drains over 40 percent of the nation’s lands, clearly Wisconsin farms are not the only source of nutrients creating the Dead Zone, but Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois do contribute far more than other states, and this year’s heavy rainfall delivers an especially heavy punch to the Gulf.

I’m sure that every farmer present knew the problem abstractly, at least. But hearing a fisherman describe declining shrimp catches, meeting their families, sharing jokes and stories, and certainly eating their shrimp made the connection stronger. The fact that fishermen devoted a week in the middle of shrimping season to come and celebrate the conservation practices of the Iowa County farmers who had invited them was inspiring.

The farmers — on farms of all sizes and kinds — belong to the newly formed Trout Creek-Mill Creek Farmer-Led Watershed Group. After receiving a state agriculture department’s Producer-Led Watershed grant last spring, they met through the summer to discuss farming practices that reduce soil erosion and thus the loss of nitrogen and phosphorus off the land and into water. Practices that farmers adopt range from planting cover crops to no-tillage planting, to intensive rotational grazing, to creating stream crossings and fencing to keep animals out of streams.

Each farmer has developed and follows, or is in the process of developing, a nutrient management plan that lays out specific practices suited to a farm’s particular circumstance to reduce nutrient runoff. Farmers value nutrient management planning for various reasons. While most say that water quality always mattered to them, for many it wasn’t at the front of their thinking until their plan demonstrated to them that they were over-fertilizing their crops. Cutting back helped them save thousands of dollars annually.

The fishermen who ended their week on Friday touring farms and learning how farmers who keep soil and nutrients on Wisconsin farms improve fishing conditions in Gulf waters, began it on Sunday by harvesting the shrimp. On Monday, they shelled it and cooked delicious shrimp etouffe, which they froze and packed on ice on their trucks with the rest of their shrimp and special cooking equipment. On Tuesday they began driving north, arriving Wednesday night at farms in the watershed group who wanted to host them. Thursday, they toured some of the hills and valleys of southwest Wisconsin that make the area so subject to erosion before beginning to cook up their shrimp feast for Thursday dinner. Friday, after touring three of the farmer groups’ farms, the fishermen served up yet another amazing feast, had us all in the palms of their hands, and then got in their trucks and headed south again, following the river back to the Bayou, back to the Gulf, where they wait to receive the waters that come, for good or ill, from Wisconsin.

mississippi-river-map  farm-waterways

First printed in the Capital Times Oct.4, 2016.