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In President Jim Holte's column 'Rethinking Manure Management,' he asked farmers to step up their game when it comes to minimizing manure's potential environmental impact.

This year Wisconsin farmers are being given a golden opportunity to do just that.

The Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection has $250,000 to grant to watershed projects that are led by groups of five or more farmers. This collaborative approach on the local level sets the stage for farmers to prove they are the environmental stewards they often say they are.

This project was funded in the 2015-17 state budget as a result of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau and many commodity groups requesting its approval to the Governor's office, State Legislature, DATCP and the Department of Natural Resources.

To qualify, producer-led groups must include at least five farmers who want to help others in the watershed voluntarily work on reducing nonpoint source pollution. The group must collaborate with one of the following entities: DATCP, DNR, a county land conservation committee, UW-Discovery Farms, UW-Extension or a nonprofit conservation organization. The collaboration requirement was included to give farmers a range of options on which experts to work with to ensure the best possible chance of success for the project.

Grant funds may be used for start-up costs such as work planning meetings, field days and hiring an expert to assist the effort. Grant funds also can be used for incentive payments to farmers to implement conservation practices such as soil testing, planting cover crops, nutrient management planning, equipment rental or other best management practices.

The maximum grant per entity is capped at $20,000 and requires matching funds (equal to the amount requested by the group).

This proactive approach to conservation is not entirely new. It's already happening in northwest Wisconsin's St. Croix/Red Cedar River Watershed and by the Yahara Pride Farms project near Madison.

We in agriculture often critique regulators for not understanding farming or what practices really work (or don't) on the land. We also like to say that one-sized regulations do not fit all.

This producer-led watershed effort is intentionally designed to work anywhere across Wisconsin's diverse agricultural and geographical landscapes. This includes grain, vegetable, fruit and livestock farms. This includes everywhere from the Northwoods to southeastern counties facing urban sprawl, regions known for sand, clay or karst, flat fertile prairies or rolling hills and valleys.

Grant applications are now available from DATCP, see their website for more information: datcp.wi.gov and search watershed protection projects.

There's a sense of urgency to get these projects started across Wisconsin. Farmers need to show regulators and the general public that we can work together to initiate and implement conservation practices. The public must be shown that we can raise livestock, spread manure and raise crops without harming the environment. If we can't show successful outcomes, efforts to regulate farming will intensify.

The bottom line is this: It is up to you as farmers to get together and talk about what problems you want to solve locally. If you fail to do so, be prepared for someone in Madison or (worse yet) Washington, D.C., to tell you how, where and when you can farm.

Zimmerman is the Executive Director of Governmental Relations for the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation.

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