Taking pride in conservation: Farmer-led group trying innovative approaches to limit phosphorus runoff

WAUNAKEE — South-central Wisconsin farmers in the Yahara Watershed know they have a lot to lose if they are reactive rather than proactive in what they do to prevent phosphorus from running off their farms and entering the waterways.

To tackle the challenge head-on, about 50 farmers have formed an organization known as Yahara Pride Farms. The nonprofit group works on projects to improve the soil and water quality in the Yahara Watershed, which includes land in Columbia, Dane and Rock counties.

Since the group was formed in 2011, it has promoted the use of new tillage and manure-injection practices and implemented a fall cover-crop program. The organization is also putting together a farmer-certification program they believe could provide financial benefits to farmers.

The idea, according to Yahara Pride Farms President Jeff Endres, is to proactively promote best-management practices to allow farmers to avoid stringent regulations such as those being implemented in the Chesapeake Bay region in the eastern U.S.

“There’s a story to be told about the things agriculture has been doing for years,” Endres said. “We’re going to keep building off of those good things. This group of farmers believes we’re better off to be proactive than reactive.”

The federal Environmental Protection Agency has taken sweeping actions to limit pollution in the Chesapeake Bay, and earlier this year a federal judge upheld the EPA’s effort to force farmers to keep cattle out of streams, build waste-storage systems and implement conservation practices on their farms.

The urgency level increased in the Yahara Watershed in 2010 when the Yahara River was added to the EPA’s impaired waters list. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources was given the task of addressing the river’s issues.

Endres said farmers who are participating in the Yahara Pride program would rather implement practices on their own than be told by regulators what to do.

“Regulations end up costing you money, and I believe it ends up taking the thinking man out of the game,” Endres said.

The farmer organization was formed after being approached by the Madison-based Clean Lakes Alliance. The lakes group proposed realistic approaches to keeping phosphorus out of Madison’s lakes, Endres said.

“They said in order to do that they had to have all of the players at the table, including agriculture,” Endres said. “They weren’t coming into it pointing fingers or playing the blame game. They wanted to figure out a way to help coordinate the effort and work with agriculture.”

“From our perspective there’s been a lot of great work in the watershed that’s gone unrecognized by folks in the community,” said Don Heilman, Clean Lakes Alliance president. “The first part of our goal was to recognize good producers for what they’ve already done and secondly to recognize them for new innovative conservation practices they put in place on their farms.”

Endres said the Yahara Pride Farms organization has allowed farmers to tell agriculture’s side of the story with the Clean Lakes Alliance bridging the communication gap.

“We’re getting our message back to them as well as getting the urban message out to agriculture,” he said.

A 12-member board of directors guides Yahara Pride Farms, including six farmers, an agribusiness representative, a crop consultant, a representative from the Madison Metropolitan Sewer District, and three members from the Clean Lakes Alliance.

Directors developed a fall cover crop program in 2012 that resulted in 1,100 acres of cover crops to keep soil and phosphorus in place after row crops are harvested. The acreage increased to 2,600 in 2013.

“We’re giving farmers the opportunity to try different things, such as flying the seed onto the fields, broadcast spreading, slurry incorporation, no-till drilling and conventional drilling,” Endres said. “We also put in a cover crop plot to compare different species of cover crops planted on four different dates. We have to compare growth and performance so we know at the end of the day what it does to profitability.”

“We understand that there are business decisions that have to be made by farmers — there are environmental and economical reasons to do things,” Heilman said. “If we can make the case for the economics, the environmental side will be a byproduct.”

The organization has recently added a pilot certification program to help members identify their current conservation strengths and weaknesses. By doing so, farmers should get a clear picture of how they can reduce their phosphorus runoff.

The group has hired a conservationist to visit member farms and review their farming practices.

“For farmers who go through this process, it gives them an opportunity to have an outside opinion on their farming operation,” Endres said. “It will also help them create a baseline to move forward.”

Farming practices will fall into three categories — red, yellow and green, Endres said. If a practice receives a red rating, that means it should probably be addressed within the next year. A yellow rating indicates a farmer should make long-range plans to improve the practice, and a green rating indicates the farmer is meeting the highest specifications for that practice.

Farmers who go through the assessment process would be labeled as “certified Yahara Pride members,” Endres said, which could make them eligible for discounted services and supplies, opportunities to test new technologies and value-added commodity prices.

The organization is working with service providers to come up with a list of potential benefits for members.

“We’ve got plans to step up that program in 2014 — it’s too early to say how many agribusinesses will participate,” Endres said.

“We developed a brand so we could make good conservation a badge of honor, so to speak,” Heilman said. “Members can put a sign out in front of the farm or put the Yahara Pride logo on their hat or letterhead. It’s a process that is evolving, but it’s something we want to build on.”

About 200 farmers and agribusiness representatives attended a pair of Yahara Pride field days earlier this year to demonstrate strip tillage, vertical manure injection and cover crop options.

Endres said the unique manure-injection system seemed to be popular with farmers.

“We were able to get across about 300 acres on 12 farms with that piece of equipment,” Endres said. “It’s a different style of injection that results in basically no soil disturbance. The whole idea is to get manure off the surface of the ground and minimize the amount of tillage it takes to bury it.”

Endres operates a 350-cow dairy farm in partnership with his brothers Randy and Steve. They have followed a nutrient-management plan for 15 years and are planning on incorporating some of the innovations Yahara Pride Farms is introducing.

“It’s really easy to say thou shalt do this and not do it yourself,” Endres said. “We have 200 acres of cover crops on our farm and we are trying strip tillage and some vertical tillage. We also have a cover crop test plot on our farm.”

Endres said the organization has received calls from farmers in other parts of the state who were investigating whether they might do something similar in their areas.

“This could be applicable in lots of places,” Endres said. “We’re doing something that’s unique and different. Time will tell how successful it will be.”

About $130,000 was raised from private sources in 2013, Heilman said, and the budget is larger for next year.

“You couple that with the cost-share programs the county and DNR have in place and there’s a lot that can be done,” he said.

There is no fee for farmers to join Yahara Pride Farms. Endres said there are about 200 farmers in the watershed so with 50 members the organization “has a good start.”

Endres said the effort is taking lots of his time but he believes it is important for agriculture to step up to the plate to address the phosphorus issue.

“If we can show our good level of stewardship, then when (state or federal regulators) want to come with more regulations, we can stand up and defend ourselves and say, ‘No, what you’re saying isn’t actually true. We’re doing this already.’

“The issue is not going to go away by itself. The more people that get involved on the other side of the issue, the harder it’s going to be for agriculture.”

This article originally appeared on the The Country Today website. To view the original article, click here.

Natalie EndresTaking pride in conservation: Farmer-led group trying innovative approaches to limit phosphorus runoff