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More than 100 guests - farmers,  business people and general public - attended the annual Ag Innovation Day at Waunakee on August 16.  The event, hosted by Yahara Pride Farms, featured field tours, speakers and discussion focusing on  the reduction of phosphorus flowing into Madison lakes from within the 359 square mile Yahara Watershed.

Manure was a central topic of the day and attendees had the chance to see drag line and tanker methods of applying manure using low disturbance manure Injection techniques.

Visitors toured the new manure composting facility at the loose housing heifer facility  at Endres Berryridge Farms,  to hear and see the science behind the process and the view the equipment needed.   They  also saw  finished compost applied to a field.

The final stop included a detailed cover crop planting demonstration where attendees had the chance to see eight different pieces of equipment plant a Barley-Pea mix on a recently harvested wheat field.

What is  a watershed?                                                                                          

A watershed is a natural drainage basin for rain and snowmelt. Within a watershed, all water flows to a single point at low elevation, where it typically joins another water body.

The Yahara Watershed, which begins in southern Columbia County at the beginning of the Yahara River, includes the four lakes of Mendota, Monona, Waubesa and Kegonsa, flows into the Rock River and ultimately to the Mississippi River.

Much of the watershed is farm land; but it also  encompasses most of the urban land in the Madison metropolitan area and all or parts of five cities, seven villages and sixteen towns and is home to about a half  million people.

Lots of organizations

There are some 53 organizations listed as involved with maintaining and improving various aspects of the the Yahara River. These range from “Badger Fly Fishers” to “Friends of Lake Mendota” to “Madison Area Weed Warriors.”  Not listed, but possibly the most active and accomplishing most in terms of lake improvement is the Yahara Pride Farms.

Established in 2012, Yahara Pride Farms is a farmer-led,  nonprofit organization that strives to preserve agricultural heritage while simultaneously encouraging farmers to engage in proactive environmental stewardship within the Yahara Watershed.

Participating farms employ practices that result in the preservation and enhancement of soil and water resources for today, and for generations to come.  The main focus of Yahara Pride Farms throughout the year is reducing phosphorus delivery to the Madison chain of lakes and the Yahara River through innovative agriculture techniques.

The beginning

Bob Uphoff, a well known Dane County hog producer and vice chair of Yahara Pride Farms, tells how the organization got started in 2011.

“Several area farmers, were invited to attend a meeting of the Clean Lakes Association (CLA), an organization already working to improve the area lakes.” (Their aim:  to continue building a community of people, businesses, organizations, and government agencies dedicated to improving and protecting water quality in the Yahara River watershed.)

“CLA had hired an engineering firm to remove phosphorus from the lakes but realized they had little contact with the agricultural community,” Uphoff continues. “As I remember, Jeff Endres, Waunakee, Walter Meinholz, DeForest, Will Hensen, Middleton and I attended the meeting.”

Uphoff explains how the CLA helped Yahara Pride Farms get organized (officially in 2012) with an ambitious group of area producers, agronomists, and businessmen.  We wanted to form a self-regulated, self-recognized, and self-incentivized organization to improve and protect our land and waterways.

Now

Today, Yahara Pride Farms is an action-based organization  that focuses on increasing the implementation of conservation and effective manure management practices as well as sharing information learned from its projects and research.

One of the major purposes of forming this group was to give farmers a voice in environmental discussions that  too-often have resulted in rules and regulations without farmer input.

Here are the ways Yahara Pride Farms does this: 

1...Create a mechanism to recognize farmer-led environmental sustainability, reward farmers for good stewardship, track collective progress in conservation and demonstrate watershed advancement.
2. Through our farmer network of information sharing, help inform the agricultural industry of new water quality rules, laws and issues.
3. Earn the trust and respect of farmers, private citizens and government through engaging them in our projects and educational programs that demonstrate how the agricultural industry is committed to doing its fair share in making improvements in the watershed.
4.  Create the Yahara Pride brand and grow its recognition among both urban and rural communities.

What are the results:

In 2015, farmers in the program reduced phosphorus delivery by 8,642 lbs. Since 2012, farmers have documented a total phosphorus delivery reduction of 15,872 lbs. Yahara Pride Farms has also developed a certification program where farms undergo an extensive voluntary audit process and achieve a specific passing score.

Yahara Pride Farms has engaged the environmental groups, community, public utilities,  and agribusiness through a holistic approach to conservation where everyone shares in the successes and areas for learning.

Bare bones

Although the organization has a budget of some $300,000 , all from grants, sponsorships and in-kind donations,  it has no central office or full time employees.  “We use outside consultants and assistance from other organizations,” Uphoff says.  “For instance, Dairy Business Association offers their employee, Maria Woldt, to be our part time communications manager and she does an outstanding job for us.

Deb  Reinhart, of the PDPW Foundation says: “we provided grants to help Yahara Pride Farm get started, now they are the blueprint for other similar farmer - led groups going the same direction. “

“Ag Innovation Day  let farmers get up close and personal with new techniques and new equipment, it  allowed community members to learn about conservation techniques that their neighbors are using to protect the land, water and air,” said Jeff Endres, chair of Yahara Pride Farms.

That’s the idea and Yahara Pride Farms is making it work.  For information, go to yaharapridefarms.org

John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications,  He can be reached at 608-222-0624 or e-mail him at jfodairy2@gmail.com.

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