Farmer-led groups focus on conservation

“Let us not forget that the cultivation of the earth is the most important labor of man. When tillage begins, other arts will follow. The farmers, therefore, are the founders of civilization.” — Daniel Webster

Farmers gather at a Yahara Pride Farms presentation near Madison, Wis.

By Tim Froberg
No one knows the struggles, hardships and challenges that crop up daily on the farm better than farmers.
That’s why state farmers are working together on an action plan to improve agricultural and conservation practices. While there are multiple farmer-led conservation groups in Wisconsin, they all share a common goal – to protect the precious soil and water in the Badger State for themselves and future generations.
Among those who have made the most progress are Yahara Pride Farms, Lafayette Ag Stewardship Alliance, the Western Wisconsin Conservation Council and Peninsula Pride Farms.
Here is a look at each of the four groups:
Yahara Pride Farms
Created in 2011 following concerns with water quality, Yahara Pride Farms is focused on protecting Dane County’s land and waterways through self-regulation and incentives.
“We were approached by the folks that were starting the Clean Lakes Alliance in the Madison area, which was smack-dab in the middle of our watershed,” said Jeff Endres, president of Yahara Pride Farms and a partner in Endres Berryridge Farms in Waunakee. “Lake quality was, and is, a concern for us, and they were reaching out to farmers — in ways that probably have never been done before — in an open-minded approach to improve lake quality.”
Yahara Pride Farms, which has 72 members and is the largest group in the state,  oversees a successful cost-share program that has substantially increased the number of cover crops planted since 2012. Cover crops reduce soil erosion and improve soil structure and resiliency, while cutting fertilizer costs and the need for herbicides and other pesticides.
Various financial incentives are offered by YPF for the planting of cover crops and other conservation practices such as strip tillage, low disturbance manure injections, low disturbance deep tillage, headland stacking and manure composting.
Phosphorous control has been a major issue in Dane County, and the group says a combination of cover crops and implementation of conservation practices has helped reduce phosphorous delivery to Madison area lakes and the Yahara River by 15,872 pounds since 2012.
In 2013, Yahara Pride Farms started a farm-certification program to recognize farmers for their stewardship efforts and brainstorm improvements to current agricultural practices.
To become certified, farmers or operators must complete a facility, soil and crop assessment and receive at least an 80 percent evaluation rating. Certified farmers receive discounts on services, products and equipment that ensure good agricultural practices.
“The biggest thing we’ve accomplished is creating a way of showing progress in our farmers,” said Endres.
For every farmer who puts the conservation practices into use with cost share, YPF has documented things such as the change in water quality they’re experiencing, or water or soil leaving their farm.
“It really gives us a good baseline to see how agriculture is doing, and where our strengths and weaknesses are,” Endres said. “The key to any water quality issue is knowing where you are at, and where you need to move to.”
The ultimate goal is getting more farmer participation, Endres said.
“We need to change the culture in agriculture and in the non-farms sector to help everyone understand what agriculture is really doing and how we can work collectively to bring more money into agriculture to deal with solutions,” he said. “That’s important because in today’s farm economy the cost of where we’re at now and the cost to move the needle gets pretty expensive.”

Lafayette Ag Stewardship Alliance
Formed in 2017, Lafayette Ag Stewardship Alliance – better known as LASA – strives to protect Lafayette County’s natural resources by empowering more farmers to use sustainable agricultural practices.
“We looked first at water quality because we want everyone to enjoy good, clean water,” said Jim Winn, a dairy farmer from Wiota and LASA’s leader.
“But after starting the group and talking to some local farmers, we realized that education was going to be key. We started to educate our farmers on different practices that other farmers in the state were having success with.”
UW Discovery Farms – part of the University of Wisconsin Extension group – has had a profound influence on LASA, along with the Dairy Strong Sustainability Alliance, which works to ensure proper dairy practices are followed.
“UW Discovery Farms did a study in which they monitored things like rainfall events and manure application, so we really gleaned a lot of information from them,” Winn said. “They were a big shot in the arm for us.”
LASA, which currently has 19 members, hosts educational events and offers agricultural and conservation opportunities for farmers and community members. Winn feels it is vital for the two groups to connect and collaborate.
“We want to show the community that we are in this together,” Winn said. “Everyone has a part in this and we want to show that farmers care about our environment and the land.”
LASA recently initiated a cost-share program for planting cover crops in Lafayette County and the response has been encouraging.
“We offer a 20-acre deal that we will help pay for the seed costs and put cover crops down,” Winn said. “We’re getting more and more people to sign up for it, including some who aren’t even members of our group. We’re hoping to gain more young people who can see the value of our group. We have some great members and I think it’s going to catch on.”

Western Wisconsin Conservation Council
Started in 2017, Western Wisconsin Conservation Council’s mission is to protect the watersheds of St. Croix County.
The St. Croix County Board of Supervisors launched a water quality study group in January 2017, which was a major factor in the WWCC’s creation.
Among the study group’s recommendations were to increase the number of acres enrolled in nutrient management plans; revise the county’s land-use policy and zone ordinances to protect groundwater resources; develop a well-testing program to create baseline data for water quality; and explore options for the regulation of livestock operations and licenses for facility siting.
“We feel that farmers are really good conservationists,” said Western Wisconsin Conservation Council president Todd Doornink, who is also a partner with Jon-De Farm, a 1,500-cow dairy farm in Baldwin.
“Our family has been doing it for 100 years, but we have never recorded any data on conservation efforts. All we’re asking is that farmers start recording things. Our main goal is to just get better each year.”
The conservation council’s most significant accomplishment to date, according to Doornink, has been a collaborative effort with UW-River Falls to test members’ wells for high nitrate levels four times a year.
The UW-River Falls team also performs soil tests on members’ land.
“We’ve been able to establish a database for our members, and that information is a baseline for us,” Doornink said. “Being concerned about nitrates – that’s how we’re going to further study these types of issues.”
The group currently has 30 members and momentum is growing, Doornink said.
There is no cost to join, but members must agree to allow confidential well and soil testing on their property.
“What we’ve learned so far is the importance of just creating a forum for farmers to get together and talk about what works best for them,” he said.
“With the information we gained last year, we want to continue well testing. Hopefully we can keep the ball rolling.”    

Peninsula Pride Farms
Founded in 2016, Peninsula Pride Farms represents crop and dairy farms ranging in size from 60 to 6,000 cows in Kewaunee and southern Door counties.
Kewaunee County has the highest cow density of any county east of the Rocky Mountains. That high cow population, along with the area’s unique karst geology, can create environmental issues because fertilizers have a better chance of seeping through and entering groundwater.
Water quality has been an issue in Kewaunee County for years.
“Half of our focus is groundwater and half of our focus in surface water,” said Peninsula Pride Farms President Don Niles, who is also a partner in Dairy Dreams in Casco.
“We want to not only use the best management practices while adhering to the law, of course, but to go above and beyond the requirements to protect ground and surface water.”
The group, which has 52 members, is currently conducting research on how nitrogen and pathogens move through the soil.
“Bacteria is a concern here with the shallow ground, so we’re identifying the best management practices, some simple and some elaborate,” Niles said. “The whole idea is to look beyond solutions that have been tried already and find new, innovative things we can do.”
The group has started cost share programs to persuade farmers to use cover crops and plant harvestable buffer areas around sinkholes, which have been a problem in the area.
Peninsula Pride also offers cost share programs for the split application of nitrogen and assists farmers with soil depth verification.
In addition, the group started a Water Well Program to assist families dealing with E. coli well contamination — no matter the source. That program has benefited seven families to date.
“The Water Well Program is unique,” Niles said. “It doesn’t matter whether the well has been contaminated though agricultural practices or through their own septic systems,” Niles said.
“We’ll supply them with free home delivery of drinking water for up to three months and we’ll pay for well inspection. If they decide they want to put in a whole treatment system, we’ll pay for half the cost of equipment and the full cost of installation.”

Leading the Way
Here is how to learn more about Wisconsin’s four largest farmer-led conservation groups:
Lafayette Ag Stewardship Alliance:
Peninsula Pride Farms:
Western Wisconsin Conservation Fund:
Yahara Pride Farms: