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KIMBERLY – For more than five years, farmer-led watershed groups, farm demonstration networks and farmer champions have provided the knowledge and leadership needed to change eastern Wisconsin’s farming practices for the better.

Recently, more than 135 farmers, crop consultants, agency staff, and representatives of non-governmental organizations attended the fifth annual Fox Watershed Farmer roundtable at Liberty Hall.

The Roundtable Planning Team is led by the Alliance for the Great Lakes whose goal was to create an event for farmers to collectively learn from each other about conservation topics in ways relevant to their individual farm and the watershed.

Also active in this conservation effort is the Fox-Wolf Watershed Alliance, an independent nonprofit organization that identifies issues and advocates effective policies and actions that protect, restore, and sustain water resources in the Fox-Wolf River Basin.

Gallagher recognizes farm conservation

Since his election to Congress in 2016, Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Green Bay), whose 8th congressional district includes much of the area comprising the Fox-Wolf River Basin, has taken a keen interest in improving water quality in the area. He is also a strong supporter of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI).

As the event’s first speaker, Gallagher praised area farmers for their commitment to conservation.

“Every time I attend a farm breakfast or demonstration day, I’m just blown away by all the conservation work that’s being done across Northeast Wisconsin by the agricultural community, with cover crops, manure application, and other programs we have to reduce phosphorus,” he said. 

“I think we lead the country and the world in this. We’re basically taking our centuries of strong farming practices and marrying them with innovative conservation efforts, and I think that’s a recipe for success.”

Gallagher acknowledged that many farmers are employing conservation practices to reduce soil damage especially during wet weather.

“I know last spring was tough for many of you, causing crops to be planted late or go unplanted,” he said. “And for many the damage done to soil during the harvest, undid years of good conservation practices.”

He also noted that farmers who planted cover crops had less flooding damage, and found the carrying capacity on those fields was greater. “This is just one way farmers are voluntarily choosing to incorporate conservation techniques into their farming operation and, in the process, are becoming more resilient when faced with extreme weather events.”

Great Lakes Restoration Initiative

Gallagher stressed that many tools and funding sources are available to help carry out conservation programs to protect area waterways and reduce nutrient runoff from agriculture and stormwater non point sources. Among the most important is the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI). 

“Last summer I had the opportunity to see firsthand how GLRI dollars can be leveraged to rebuild our natural infrastructure and improve the watershed,” he related. 

“This funding is critical at a time when our waters are facing threats from invasive species, harmful chemicals and nutrient runoff. These dollars are necessary to ensure that we can pass along our natural resources to future generations,” he stressed.

“I’m proud to say that this year my colleagues and I helped to secure a badly needed increase in funding for GLRI, but our work is not done, and we’re going to continue push for more funding for the critical programs for the Great Lakes and our clean water. I cosponsored legislation to gradually  increase GLRI funding from $375 million to $475 million over the next four fiscal years.”

Regional Alliance

Recognizing the need for a broader conservation approach, local groups work closely with organizations like the Alliance for the Great Lakes led by Todd Brennan, who’s based in Milwaukee.

Brennan, who also spoke at the roundtable, works regionally on matters related to sustainable water use and sits on the advisory committee for the eight-state Great Lakes Water Resources Compact and Binational Agreement. He works to ensure the integrity of the compact and has advised on new rules for compact implementation.

Brennan plays an integral role in shaping the Alliance’s work on nutrient pollution from agricultural sources. He partners with University Wisconsin – Green Bay to spearhead a broad-based initiative in Lower Fox River communities to reduce phosphorus pollution and improve water quality in Green Bay.

“It’s been five years since we held our first roundtable here, and I’m so glad to see how this event has grown,” he told attendees. “We know you’re facing very difficult challenges. But in the midst of those challenges there  are many successes, and that’s why we’re here today. And I commend you all for coming here to share what you’ve learned.”

Additional challenges

While acknowledging that considerable progress has been made over the last decade, Brennan stressed that much work remains.

“The economic impact of Green Bay, from just the recreational fishery, is $254 million, and $234 million from Lake Winnebago. But these are also Algae outbreak hotspots,” he explained.

He pointed out that just under 50 percent of the phosphorus in area waters comes from agriculture, along with 60 percent of the sediment, while one-third of the phosphorus load comes from wastewater treatment facilities, with the rest from urban areas.

“What happens on the land is reflected on the water,” Brennan emphasized. “When there are fewer inputs going on the land, we actually see an immediate improvement in the water.”

He gave credit to area farmers for efforts to improve water quality. “We know how much agriculture contributes to our economy. We know that farmers are trying to reduce runoff and nutrient loss, keeping the soil and nutrients on the land where they belong. What area farmers have done over the years, especially in the last five, has put us in a good position to make further progress,” Brennan said.

He noted that farms, the entire ag industry, watershed managers and other agencies are getting better at how they manage. “We getting better at managing the response and at adapting to improve water quality,” he said

Continuing to improve water quality in the lower Fox, the new goal is to achieve a 30 percent reduction in phosphorus by 2030 and a 50 percent reduction by 2040.

“If we can achieve that we will have a healthy system with significantly reduced dead zones from algae outbreaks, sediment and nutrient pollution,” Brennan said. “And, in turn, we get safer water restored wildlife, improved recreation, less dredging, healthier soil and economic stability.”

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