One of three Women Caring for the Land workshops, sponsored by Wisconsin Farmers Union together with the Women, Food and Agriculture Network, was held at the Brattset Family farm at Palmyra where three generations of women farmers care for the farm.
The workshop attracted about 30 women from a variety of types of farms.
The focus of the workshop was conservation and sustainability. During the event, women had an opportunity to ask questions and learn from one another in a relaxed setting and then get out onto the farm to see the effectiveness of some of the practices on the Brattset farm.
Carol Schutte, coordinator of the Women, Food and Ag Network, led the workshop. The network has been going for 19 years and is grant-driven with no membership fees. The Palmyra meeting was one of 70 similar meetings held in 70 states since the group started.
“One thing we have been successful in doing over the years is to help connect women farmers with local professionals who can help,” she said.
Leading the workshop on conservation she added, “There is room on everyone’s farm, big or small, grain or livestock, organic or conventional.”
Learning about soil
Schutte said a few generations ago, the sign of a good farmer was straight rows and black soil.
“Now its residue on the fields, covered soil and healthy crops,” she said. “What is neglected too often is the structure and biology of the soil. It’s not all chemistry and NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium).
“The chemistry will be good if the structure and biology is good. Good soil is held together by the roots.”
She gathered samples of soil from various locations to compare the structure so participants could see the benefits of crumbling soil that is not hard but is also not powdery.
Crumbly soil will absorb water. Rain will run off of hard soil and wash powdery soil away. Roots easily reach through crumbling healthy soil but have a difficult time going through hard or powdery soil.
She demonstrated how water flows through the various types of soil. If water is clear when it flows through the soil is healthy. If it is cloudy or if it puddles on top, the soil is not healthy.
“When soil moves off the surface of the land, it’s like a kid taking his finger and scraping a little frosting off a cake," Schutte said. "Mom comes along and smoothes it over so it looks good, but it has gotten thinner. When this is repeated a few times, pretty soon there isn’t any frosting left on the cake.”
Using another baking analogy to illustrate the importance of air in soil, she said if you pour water into a jar of cocoa powder it will stand on top and eventually drain out, taking the cocoa powder with it. When pouring water into a jar of cocoa puffs, the puffs will soak up some water the excess water will drain through without any cocoa in the water.
“Biology can fix unhealthy soil," Schutte said. "We can do more with biology than tillage.”
Role of cover crops
Schutte asked participants to hold hands to illustrate the benefits of keeping something growing on the land and how the roots hold soil together. She said like holding hands, roots in the soil help to transfer nutrients from one area to another.
If there are beneficial fungi in one area and minor nutrients in another, the roots will pick them up and distribute them to the rest of the soil. Without those roots, each will remain in just one area and some area will be without the beneficial nutrients.
Schutte pointed to the benefits of cover crops in feeding the life in the soil and help with the transfer of beneficial fungi and nutrients throughout the soil.
Pointing to the benefits of cover crops, she said is important to consider the reason for establishing them.
Some deep rooted cover crops like tillage radish are helpful in breaking up compaction. The fibrous roots of grasses soak up nutrients and hold them and the soil in place so when it rains the water will not run off and carry nutrients and soil with it. Other crops are beneficial for capturing nutrients and holding them in the plant until spring when they are slowly released.
“Organisms metabolize from the cover crop decomposing in spring,” Schutte said. “If you plant a cocktail of all three, you will get the most benefit.
"Cover crops are not a one-year fix. It took many years for the soils to get unhealthy and you will need to build it again over time.”
As for the cost, she said there is an investment in seed and time but as the soil becomes healthy, the result will be a lower cost of production each year because of improved yields without purchasing as many nutrients. There will also be a savings in herbicides since when ground is left bare, something will grow there. If it is not a cover crop, it will be a weed.
Schutte’s presentation was followed by a discussion among the participants about practices that have worked and have not worked for them.
Many of the participants faced challenges because the farms where they started had been in conventional crops over the years without conservation practices. They were looking for ways to rebuild the soil biology and establish healthy crops or pastures.
Other Women Caring for the Land workshops were held at Deer Park near Amery and Dodgeville.
Nearly half of the farmland in the Midwest is currently owned or co-owned by women. The informal discussions among the women in this peer group encourage participants to share their particular challenges on the farm and get advice and help from others who have succeeded in dealing with the issue.
Some of the participants are raising heritage animals. Some have started CSA’s or produce businesses. Some have inherited acreage and are looking for ways to care for the land or graze livestock.