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Discovery Farms director offers advice to Yahara watershed farm group

May 2, 2013 | 0 comments

Last week we reported on a program in the Yahara watershed in southern Wisconsin, started by farmers and environmentalists to pro-actively work on phosphorus and sediment runoff that affect areas lakes. Here is another part of that story with advisor Dennis Frame.

Wisconsin's Discovery Farms program was founded in 2001 to help measure and report what is really going on environmentally on actual, working farms.

Dennis Frame has been co-director of that statewide program since it began. It was founded on the premise it would be difficult for regulators and lawmakers to make rules and regulate farms if there was no hard-and-fast information on what kinds of runoff or pollution potential was already happening on farms, he said.

The projects done by Discovery Farms have helped produce data on water quality on farms and even dispel some myths about runoff potential.

One of those myths is that forests and woodlands act as sponges and don't allow much runoff. He has documented serious runoff from such woodlands onto farm fields during big rain events.

Other projects have monitored runoff from pasture-based dairy cattle farming systems and worked with conventional farmers to measure the runoff potential from cropland and the nutrient load in farm drainage ditches.

These kinds of "non-point" pollution are trickier to measure.

"Point-source pollution is very easy to measure but non-point pollution isn't. We know what people think is coming from agriculture.

"Discovery Farms was developed to find out what is really going on. Every time we documented a problem, farmers made changes."

One of the things the program found, he said, is that sediment losses from farmland are better than was thought at the outset of the program. That was based on many Wisconsin farms that were part of a variety of projects since Discovery Farms began.

On some Wisconsin farm fields, sediment loss has been documented to be as little as 47 pounds per acre. "That's about a wheelbarrow of soil lost per year," he said.

For those who would say that's still too much, Frame says "there is no 'zero' because phosphorus is part of the ecosystem. The only way to have zero is to have no life."

Another element of Discovery Farms' research is that "every acre counts in the watershed." A farmer who is doing all he can to protect his soil from erosion and runoff can be undone by a neighbor - perhaps even a non-farm landowner - who is not, Frame said.

Frame has been advising the Yahara Pride Farms group - a coalition of farmers and environmentalists in the Yahara watershed in southern Wisconsin. The group is pursuing a number of projects to help protect their soils and reduce nutrient runoff on a watershed-wide basis.

Frame spoke at a recent meeting of the group in Waunakee that drew landowners and farmers from southern Columbia County, Dane and Rock counties where the watershed lies.

"You guys have to own it," Frame said. "The government isn't the solution to your problem."

Frame said that his experiences with the Discovery Farms program have proven that there is no one-size-fits-all answer to the questions about runoff and nutrient loss.

Things like grazing, no-till, strip tillage and turbo till have all been touted by some as "the" answer, but he says that there is no single answer to every situation.

"There is no perfect system. Every system has weaknesses and strengths. In most cases - weather wins."

Frame said he believes nutrient planning done at a desk is worthless. When he works on a nutrient plan for a farm he likes to do a walkover with the farmer so they can talk about where problems may lie and about past practices.

Discovery Farms has worked with conservation resource people to do these walkovers to determine the next, best steps in improving water quality.

"Water quality can't be improved without everyone being involved, being part of the solution. Every acre counts, every acre matters."

Frame believes that farmers are the solution and getting them involved, as the Yahara Pride group is doing, is one of the best steps toward achieving improved water quality as well as improving watersheds and protecting soil.

The Yahara Pride Farms group was formed as an outgrowth of meetings with the Clean Lakes Alliance in Madison, an environmental group seeking to improve the quality of Madison's chain of lakes.

Six farmers, a banker and a crop consultant got together for meetings with the Clean Lakes Alliance and began a dialogue about things they could accomplish together.

In its earliest meetings the group also involved the Department of Natural Resources, Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District, community boards, counties and cities in the watershed.

The waters of the four Madison lakes are considered "impaired" based on standards set by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

That spurred farmers in the county to forge ahead with their own efforts to tackle some issues on farms that could improve the quality of the watershed.

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