Wisconsin Farmers Leading On Conservation

Pictured: A tractor on Luedke Farms cuts small rows between last year’s corn to prepare for next year’s planting in the practice called zone tillage, which reduces erosion. By Patrick Flood Photography LLC

A new online resource — nature.org/WIFarmersLead — is telling the stories of five Wisconsin farm families who have joined with other farmers in local, producer-led groups to accelerate their adoption of conservation practices in their watersheds by working together.

Wisconsin may be unique in setting up a Producer-led Watershed Protection Grant Program through DATCP. The program gives farmers a way to form their own watershed-based organizations, apply for cost-share grants, and work with other professionals to take some of the financial risks out of trying new ways to farm that benefit the environment and their operations.

“The producer-led groups have been a bright spot in conservation in Wisconsin,” says Dana Christel, DATCP Producer-led Watershed Protection Grant Program manager. “The program has provided the framework for farmers to be leaders in watershed conservation and really supports farmers to learn from and innovate among other farmers in their group or other producer-led groups across the state.”

In this online resource, five farmers talk about the practices they are implementing, the benefits they are seeing and how their involvement in farmer-led groups increases their ability to innovate and track progress on environmental goals while benefiting their farm businesses.

Bob Danes, New Holstein in Calumet County

Danes and his family own and operate a 3,900-acre cash crop farm, grain cleaning business, and trucking enterprise near New Holstein. Danes is a member of the Calumet County Ag Stewardship Alliance.

The Danes family has about 2,000 acres of cover crops, which they began planting in 2012. Planting green — the practice of no-till planting conventional crops into living cover crops — is also now a common practice on the farm.

“With heavy rain, we were seeing a lot of soil washing away along with all the nutrients the plants need,” says Danes. “With these changes, we now see the soil staying in place.”

Steve Carpenter, Darlington in Lafayette County

Carpenter, a third-generation dairy farmer near Darlington in Lafayette County, and his family milk 600 cows and farm 2,000 acres of corn, alfalfa and soybeans. Steve helped form the Lafayette Ag Stewardship Alliance and is the group’s vice president.

One of the conservation practices Steve tries on the fields where he has soil compaction issues is vertical tillage. This type of tillage reduces disturbance to the soil by cutting into it vertically rather than pulling or dragging the blades through the soil.

“I learn something from other farmers at every LASA meeting and field day,” he says. “I see what people are trying, listen to how they’re doing it, and learn from their successes and their mistakes.”

Leslie Svacina, Deer Park in St. Croix County

Svacina and her family farm Cylon Rolling Acres, which covers 140 acres and is home to a herd of up to 200 meat goats and a small flock of sheep. Svacina is a member of the Western Wisconsin Conservation Council.

“I think no matter how you farm, what you farm or where you’re at in your conservation practice journey, it’s important to always learn and improve upon what you’re doing,” she says. “It can be little steps over time that can build to make a big difference.”

Svacina utilizes rotational grazing with her livestock, moving the herd to new pasture paddocks every few days. This grazing method adds cover to the soil surface and organic matter as trampled plants break down. Goat manure and urine provide fertilizer for the soil, which then feeds the soil microbes.

The Guilette family, Casco in Kewaunee County

Guilette Farms has been in the family for four generations. They grow corn, soybeans and wheat on 300 acres. Nick Guilette is on the board of directors of Peninsula Pride Farms and an adviser with the Door-Kewaunee Watershed Demonstration Farm Network.

He says these groups are important because: “What we want to avoid is having a farmer try something that’s a good practice, fail miserably at it, and never want to try it again.”

The Guilettes are no-tilling and planting cover crops like radishes, barley and crimson and red clover. They are also creating pollinator habitats on parts of their farm that were less productive for conventional crops. In addition to supporting bees and other pollinators, these habitats help to reduce wind erosion, stabilize soil and improve water quality.

Travis Luedke, Plymouth in Sheboygan County

Luedke runs his family’s 650-acre farm with his parents, Warren and Linda, and girlfriend, Jen. They raise corn, beans and winter wheat and have been no-tilling for about 20 years. Luedke is a founding member and current treasurer of Sheboygan River Progressive Farmers.

Three years ago, they began strip-tilling after hosting an SRPF field day on their farm.

“This is a process of tilling and fertilizing only where the seed is put in,” Luedtke says. “It keeps the seed and fertilizer exactly where it needs to be, and by doing this, we can grow a better crop using less fertilizer.”

“Field days are not the same as reading about something in a book. As you listen to others, your mind wanders to the possibility of trying some of these new things yourself and getting similar results.”

Farmers for Sustainable Food and The Nature Conservancy are collaborators with all five of the farmer-led groups highlighted in the online resource.

“Farmers have long been stewards of the environment, and the farmers highlighted in this series are just a small example of this,” says Lauren Brey, managing director of Farmers for Sustainable Food, a nonprofit organization of food system partners. “Every day, our team’s top priority is finding ways to best support farmers in their conservation goals and helping them succeed.”