‘Sustainability’ Helps Environment & Possibly Pocketbook

Partners in a nationally recognized farm-level sustainability project in southwestern Wisconsin are encouraged by what they see in the results from the first year.

The dozen participating farms demonstrated that their conservation practices contribute to significant reductions in environmental pollutants reaching streams and rivers.

The analysis is part of a pilot project aligned with a framework for sustainability projects that helps farmers determine what conservation practices are most effective for their individual farms and document the environmental and financial effects.

The assessment uses nationally accepted metrics from Field to Market: The Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture to address on-farm sustainability indicators, such as greenhouse gas emissions and energy use. A tool called Prioritize, Target and Measure Application (PTMApp) is being used for measuring impact on waterways.

Among the findings, based on 2019 data:

  • On average, farms participating in the pilot project have adopted five conservation practices per field that have a positive impact on sustainability scores.
  • Farms with livestock and those that use manure for most crop nutrient needs scored, on average, better than the project benchmark for greenhouse gas emissions and energy use. Manure replaces the use of inorganic forms of nitrogen, which use more fossil fuels to produce and ship.
  • Existing conservation on the farms is reducing the amount of sediment reaching local streams and rivers by 28 percent.
  • Estimates suggest that by adding cover crops to 50 percent of all fields in the project area, additional pollution reductions of 40 percent (sediment), 28 percent (nitrogen) and 23 percent (phosphorus) can be achieved.

“Farmers have long been stewards of the environment, and the increasing adoption of conservation practices is a testament to this,” says Lauren Brey, managing director of Farmers for Sustainable Food, a nonprofit organization of food system partners. “With this project, we now have data to quantify the impact of conservation on farms and to local water resources. These assessments will also guide farmers in management decisions.”

In addition to the environmental analysis, the project is assessing return on investment for conservation practices for three of the farms. During the first year of the project, farm business management experts at Southwest Wisconsin Technical College established a baseline of data for each farm.

Brey says more farmers are joining the project and interest is growing for similar initiatives elsewhere: one with an individual farm and on-site cheese plant in Wisconsin, one with another farmer-led watershed conservation group in the state and one with a dairy processor in South Dakota.