Jim Vandenbrook took the position of executive director of the Wisconsin Land and Water Conservation Association last May, just in time for the worst drought in 50-some years.
Still, the 350 county staff members he represents - and the 450 county board supervisors that they work with - are doing what they can to help farmers get through the drought.
"Farmers are our primary customers," Vandenbrook told members of the state policy board for the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) during their meeting Aug. 14 in Madison. "There were 19,000 contacts with farmers in 2010 and that connection is something we're very proud of."
He commented that the DATCP website includes a huge list of resources in response to the drought. (To look at that see www.datcp.wi.gov
and click on the section for drought.)
In an informal poll of county conservation workers in the drought-affected counties, Vandenbrook said they are making efforts to help farmers work through the drought's effects on their conservation plans.
If corn is chopped off for silage, for example, that may not be in compliance with the farm's conservation plan to leave a certain amount of crop residue on the fields. Counties may need to have some discretion in assessing compliance and work with farmers to update their plans.
"Counties will be working with farmers to make those adjustments," Vandenbrook said.
Another topic that has been getting a lot of attention lately is cover crops, specifically those that can help gather nitrogen from the soil, hold onto soil particles through the winter and provide some emergency forage in the spring.
Several counties are making cost sharing available for such cover crop projects, he added.
County staff members are doing all they can to process the paperwork necessary to allow farmers to be able to harvest forage off or graze their land that is enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) or Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP.)
Vandenbrook said "it isn't automatic" to be able to hay and graze those lands, but said the county staff are striving to process paperwork quickly for those approvals.
County staff and supervisors want to do all they can to help farmers through the drought, he said. Vernon County officials are making county property available for haying and Dodge County is working on a cost-share program for cover crops.
Dane County has developed a pilot program to help farmers pay for the planting of cover crops and Green and Lafayette counties are testing cropped corn for free to determine its nitrate content - something that can rise dramatically in drought-stressed corn crops and make it tricky to feed.
"To a county that I ask they're all willing to do as much as they can to provide assistance to farmers in this drought," he told the board.
"I think everybody wants to do what they can."
Board member John Koepke asked about flexibility in conservation plans and the use of cover crops. Vandenbrook said that though the value of using cover crops is becoming better known, one of the real challenges this year will be finding seed, because so many farmers are going to want it.
Vandenbrook commented that grazing lands look tough this year due to the drought and that in many cornfields the silking and tasseling - the two parts of fertilization - were out of phase due to the drought, resulting in plants that aren't producing corn grain.
Board member Margaret Krome told Vandenbrook that even with the kind of budget cuts that have been seen, she has seen county conservation specialists do very good work.
"That is duly noted and much appreciated," Vandenbrook said.
Vandenbrook is a former staff member at DATCP, having worked in groundwater protection programs.