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A Marathon County dairy farm will be the first in North America to receive an environmental certification for responsible handling of water resources. 

Miltrim Farms Inc. is a large-scale dairy farm near Athens. The farm milks about 1,800 cows and grows crops on about 4800 acres of land. It’s a family operation, founded in 1988, that has grown through the years. 

Its owners also try to be conscious of its environmental impact, said general manager David Trimner.

"For us at the farm, one of our big goals is to lower our environmental footprint per cow, as well as focus on lowering our total energy consumption per cow," Trimner said.

Now, after nearly two years of working toward the certification, Miltrim will be the first farm to be designated in the Clear Water Farms program. Trimner said he hopes the certification reflects the farm’s values and efforts to be good stewards of water. It’s also a designation that could offer business advantages to dairy producers in the future.

The program is a project of the Alliance for Water Stewardship, an international organization that has worked with large companies including Coca-Cola and General Mills to revamp and improve their environmental impact. The organization worked with the River Alliance of Wisconsin to create Clear Water Farms, which they hope to expand to other U.S. dairies and farms.

"Traditionally farms have been very motivated by regulatory pressure," said Dylan Waldhuetter, program manager with the Alliance for Water Stewardship. "There’s been a lot of stick and not a lot of carrot."

The Clear Water Farms program is an attempt to work with farms to establish best practices and to provide them with a "carrot" in the form of the certification, which they can use to help market their product. The farm, Waldhuetter said, "can position itself and its brand around being a producer that is a good water steward."

Andy Johnson spent more than 30 years working in Marathon County’s conservation program, and he worked as an adviser with the River Alliance in this process. He said the sustained downturn in milk prices that has created Wisconsin’s dairy crisis has also made some farmers conscious of the way additional steps can provide them with a competitive advantage. 

"The food supply chain is demanding more of the producers and processors," Johnson said. "Dairies want to be in a position ... where they would be the last producer that someone would ever drop."

The program involved a review of Miltrim’s practices as well as its communications with neighboring local governments. Trimner said one example of a change Miltrim made was to expand anti-erosion practices by planting cover crops like grass or clover between their rows of corn. Those cover crops anchor the soil and reduce waste runoff.

Miltrim also seeks to limit tilling on its soil, and has installed a new manure processing system that reduces the amount of water the farm uses, Trimner said.

Miltrim Farms’ involvement is a kind of pilot project for the program, Waldhuetter said. The group will know that the program is succeeding if it expands to other farms. 

Trimner hopes it will expand — even if that means Miltrim would no longer be able to uniquely claim the certification.

"In the long run," he said, "our ultimate goal is to maintain a healthy planet and a healthy earth. That's obviously what we want, particularly in our little area of Marathon County."

This story originally appeared on the WI Pubic Radio website.

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