Food, Land, and Water project strives for resource protection

Oct. 16-17 conference seeks to nourish conservation conversations

Ray Mueller

CLEVELAND – Jim VandenBrook invites fellow Wisconsinites to “reach across the table, the farm fence” and to “use imagination” in joining him for the sake of protecting the state's remaining land and water resources.

Wisconsin Land and Water

VandenBrook, the featured speaker at the 2017 Chautauqua Barn Dance at Saxon Homestead Farm, has developed the “Food, Land and Water” project which is designed to pursue that goal.

As the next step in that process, VandenBrook has organized a conference to be held on Oct. 16 and 17 at The Osthoff Resort Conference Center in Elkhart Lake.

Agenda and registration information are available at

Doom and gloom data

VandenBrook's concern about protection of land and water resources, if only to maintain sufficient food production, springs from the trends that have developed during his professional career. That 35-year period started as the county conservationist in Wisconsin's western Vernon and Trempealeau counties, followed by 26 years of soil and water program administration with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection.

In his presentation titled “Food, Land and Water: Can Wisconsin Find its Way?”, VandenBrook suggested that the state has “gone backwards” in some ways on the protection of its natural resources. He hopes that recently initiated local and ground up efforts will yield better results than the top down efforts public agencies have produced in recent decades.

VandenBrook cited Wisconsin statistics which indicate that the average annual per acre soil erosion rate of more than four tons on the state's agricultural land is higher than it was in 1982 and has been increasing almost every year since 1993. Residual phosphorus (a major source of algae and cladophora growth in bodies of water) in soil has risen from 37 to 52 parts per million during the past 40 years, and nitrogen application rates continue to trend upward, resulting in leaching rates of about 20 percent and hundreds of wells with unsafe levels of nitrates in their water.

Within Wisconsin, a land area equivalent to that of Dane County has been converted to uses other than agricultural production during the past generation. Sweet corn waste is emptied into a wagon at a canning plant in Lodi, WI.

Food production

From the perspective of food production, which depends greatly on land and water resources, VandenBrook noted that 30 million pounds of food are consumed daily in Wisconsin alone and only a one week reserve exists.

In a wider view, VandenBrook noted that per acre corn yields in the United States have increased fivefold since the early 1940s, that the world's population has multiplied by 14 times since the 1600s, and that from 1960 to 2030 the arable land in world per capita will have decreased by 60 percent.

Within Wisconsin, a land area equivalent to that of Dane County has been converted to uses other than agricultural production during the past generation, VandenBrook pointed out. Although milk production has steadily increased during the period, he noted that the state's number of licensed dairy herds has fallen below 9,000 – down by 20 percent in the past five years.

“There's no stopping” in that downward trend, VandenBrook stated. His concern is about the ability to bring a new generation into the state's dairy and agricultural circles.

Conservation voluntary

While prices that farmer-producers receive for milk, grains, vegetables, and fruits have varied greatly at times during recent decades, VandenBrook observed that an inherent problem is that prices for agricultural commodities – unlike those for products in other sectors – “do not internalize the cost of conservation.” That puts conservation efforts in the agricultural sector largely in a voluntary category, he pointed out.

In the United States, consumers spend an average of only about 9 percent of their disposable income on food, VandenBrook noted. One consequence of that is that farmer-producers are often left with “slim operating margins” which in turn limit their efforts at resource conservation, he explained.

VandenBrook cited the explosion in the number of high capacity wells in Wisconsin's Central Sands counties from only a few hundred in the past to more than 3,000. He agreed that the water pumped from those wells is crucial to growing vegetable crops in that region but added that “divisions have been created” in the area and many civil suits have been filed because of significantly lowered water levels in area lakes and streams.

An Oklahoma farmer and his two sons battle the wind in this 1936 photo of the Dust Bowl taken by Arthur Rothstein. As much of the nation is parched by drought, much of the Dust Bowl - the 97 million-acre confluence of New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado and Kansas that turned to desert a half-century ago - has been spared.

The art of tillage

While tillage practices, sometimes referred to as an art, have greatly reduced the percentage of humans needed in production agriculture and “enabled the other arts” of human activity, there have also been dire consequences, VandenBrook warned.

In the United States, plowing the prairies led to the Dust Bowl in the 1930s and the creation of the Soil Conservation Service, which evolved to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, VandenBrook observed. What's needed today, he said, is much more attention to “the art of conservation tillage.”

That's one of the goals VandenBrook hopes to achieve with the Food, Land and Water project.

“Don't think small,” he advised in calling on all affected and interested parties to “get to the table and start a conversation” about conservation.

A call for courage

VandenBrook noted that it takes courage not only to “stand up and speak” but also to “sit down and listen.” He is confident that can happen because “food is fundamental” to human life and because of the close connection between food, land, and water.

During introductory remarks at the Chautauqua Barn Dance, Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy and Livestock Farmers, director Dick Cates described conservation as “a process” for which there is “no finish line.”

That school, with more 500 graduates in its 23 years, is one of the beneficiaries of the Chautauqua Barn Dance. During the past eight years, it and Gathering Waters (the alliance of 43 Wisconsin land trusts) and the Lakeshore Natural Resources Partnership have been awarded a total of approximately $120,000 raised at the event.