A new circle of farmers collaborating to protect soil, water quality, and the profitability of their farms.
May 9, 2016
In December, 2014, with a small SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) grant in hand, MFAI launched a new grassroots group – the SW Wisconsin Farmer Innovation Network. The Network aims to support farmers in six southwestern counties in exploring approaches to agriculture that are profitable and socially and environmentally responsible. With support from local Agricultural Extension agents Ted Bay (Grant County) and Gene Schriefer (Iowa County), and other agricultural and conservation educators, we started off discussing cover crops – crops that aren’t planted to harvest but rather to build and protect soil and create more crop resilience against droughts and floods. Last August, one Grant County farmer, Gary Stelpflug, hosted a terrific field day featuring several cover crops that he had sown as well as a very productive corn field he had planted into the previous year’s cover crops.
At this year’s March meeting, I asked if any farmers could identify at least four other farmers in their watershed who would be interested in together submitting a proposal to a new Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection grant program to form a farmer-led watershed group. The upshot? MFAI worked with eight farmers in two adjacent watersheds in Iowa County – the Mill-Creek and Trout Creek watersheds – and several county agencies and NGOs to submit a proposal, the approval of which was announced this week. Check it out here
It’s been stimulating to hear the exchanges at the SW WFIN group, and it’s just as exciting to work with this new spinoff Iowa County watershed group. Its farmers worry about how their practices affect water quality and soil loss, and each has committed to nutrient management planning and to implementing conservation practices to reduce soil loss and nutrient loading into streams. Our first meeting, on a rainy Thursday in late April, was alive with farmers swapping experiences, questions, suggestions about cover crops and other conservation strategies. Extension and NRCS staff and MFAI’s own cover crops guru, Jim Stute, offered practical, fact-based advice to supplement the wisdom around the table.
At that first meeting, farmers talked about their plans for planting cover crops, installing stream crossing, fencing off streams from livestock, planting buffer strips, and undertaking nutrient management planning They discussed plans for field days and farm tours and the new growth they were seeing emerging on their farms in Wisconsin’s chilly spring. As I sat there with the rain pattering outside, I felt privileged to witness growth of a different kind – a new circle of farmers collaborating to protect soil, water quality, and the profitability of their farms.
Margaret Krome, Public Policy Program Director