Farmers, who for a long time have been blamed for pollution in the Fox River basin, are increasingly being recognized for their efforts to fix the problems.
Holding up local farmers who use innovative practices to improve soil health and reduce runoff pollution from their fields was the focus of the Clean Bay Backers' third annual Bringing Back the Bay tour Friday.
Dozens of people, including lawmakers, environmentalists and farmers, toured two Brown County farms that use cover crops and no-till planting techniques to reduce fertilizer use and limit runoff from their fields. The goal of the event, according to organizers, was to educate community leaders and elected officials about the issue, and build policy and funding support for farmers experimenting with new practices that can help improve local water quality.
"We're kind of in a paradigm shift here in agriculture where we know we need to do something," said Dan Brick, owner of Brickstead Dairy, a 900-cow farm in Greenleaf.
Brick, whose farm was one of those showcased in the tour, said he gets two to three calls a week from framers interested in learning more about cover crops.
The idea is to cover fields with a secondary crop after harvest for the purpose of holding nutrients in the ground, preventing heavy erosion of bare soil and reducing runoff from rain and snowmelt.
The goal behind no-till planting is to preserve the structure of the soil.
By using these techniques to improve soil health, Brick said he hopes to cut his use of commercial fertilizers by 90 percent within five years.
Agriculture isn't the only source of runoff pollution, but it is the largest source of nutrients and sediment to the Fox River and bay of Green Bay, according to event organizers.
"The river and the bay are facing challenges today that everyone contributes to. What we do on the land is affecting the river, the bay, our streams, our creeks. We all have a part to play," said Jessica Schultz, executive director of the Fox-Wolf Watershed Alliance.
The area of lower Green Bay and the Fox River below the De Pere Dam is one of five areas designated by the state Department of Natural Resources as a Great Lakes Areas of Concern. The designation is mainly due to contaminated sediment, polluted water and lost habitat.
Last year, the Bringing Back the Bay tour included a visit to the $17.9 million Cat Island Chain restoration project.
The Clean Bay Backers are a citizen advisory committee to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for the lower Green Bay and Fox River Area of Concern.