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Leopold Award finalist calls farm conservation "second nature"

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer
The retention ponds next to the field help with summer irrigation to recycle water and the nutrients within.

Lifelong farmer John Eron says he was doing farm conservation before it was cool.

The Portage County farmer, who mostly grows corn and soybeans on 800 acres but has also dug into rye and sorghum lately, is a Leopold Award finalist being recognized for his conservation efforts in the fields. He said he's honored to be a finalist and it's a nice way to end a "crazy" year like 2020 for those in the agriculture industry.

"I didn't really understand how highly regarded the Leopold Award is. But I'm kind of starting to realize more now just what a big deal it is," Eron said. "This year has been so numbing for so many of us farmers."

One of the reasons Eron was chosen as a finalist was his nutrient recycling ponds, something he says he's used for years as a way to save water for summer irrigation while reducing soil erosion and reusing nitrogen for future plantings. He said he came up with the idea while at a Kwik Trip, where they have runoff retention ponds next to the parking lot, and he thought he could use that for his own farm to reuse the runoff from his fields.

"I was looking at it and was like, well, why can't we do that with the farmland?" Eron said. "I thought if a guy could collect that excess water in spring and fall and be able to use that to irrigate the crops in summer, not only is that water for the crops, but we could do our best to collect any nutrients ... and try to recycle that back onto the fields."

Sunflowers grow along the field corners at the Eron farm to give wildlife a natural habitat and encourage pollination.

His retention ponds at first were only to collect extra water during high rainfall events, but he later had the idea to reuse the water for irrigation because of dry summers. Eron installed a center-pivot irrigation system that drew water from the ponds, upcycling not only the water itself but also the nutrients within, since the water came from the fields anyway.

He later installed woodchip bioreactors, where woodchips buried deep in soil beneath the crops interact with water being drained to the ponds, helping it to break down and release nutrients to be reused in the irrigation system. Eron said the setup is still experimental, though.

"They're very basic – the work I've done with them is kind of a crude setup because there wasn't funding for it at the time, so it's more kind of experimenting with it," Eron said. "We're limited to the tools we have. ... I've seen farmers that have been able to do some phenomenal things with some very crude machinery."

Eron also practices no-till agriculture and uses cover crops, especially rye, which he has begun harvesting for forage along with sorghum. He said cover crops are the number one thing farmers must be implementing in their operations because of how easy it is, although he noted that farmers should look into the right kind of cover crops for their particular soil and terrain type. He shared that he knew some people who planted oats as cover crops, but they don't work as well in clay soil.

"There's so much to learn about how to do these things properly," Eron said. "You have to be careful with what you recommend because you don't ever want to give somebody advice that may not be the best because you don't want them to have a bad experience."

The Eron family: farmers John and Melissa Eron, with their children Jack and Nora.

The Eron farm also focuses on enhancing the field corners as pollination and habitat areas for local insects and wildlife because, he said, big equipment makes it hard to get all the corners of the fields done, so he would rather leave it open to wildlife for conservation. Eron plants wildflowers and grasses there that attract bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects to increase pollination among flowers.

While yields may not be as high as they could be, Eron said it's worth the small loss to be so focused on his conservation techniques because they allow him to farm the way he wanted to since he was a kid. He remembers growing up on the farm and taking tractor rides with his dad to plant and harvest the crops every year.

"I'm farming the way I wanted to farm. I remember when I was a kid, I just kind of had an idea about how I wanted to farm and what I wanted to be able to do," Eron said. "For me personally, the big thing I looked at when I was a kid was I wanted to keep the soil on our land (due to flooding)."

Children and watershed groups also visit the Eron farm for educational outreach on farm management techniques, especially when it comes to conservation, because Eron said many of these projects require extra time and effort on top of everything else. He said conservation is "second nature" to him now.

"As far as I know, I've been farming my whole life," Eron said. "People ask me, 'John, when did you become conservation minded?' And the best response I can tell them is I don't remember a time when I wasn't."

Leopold Conservation Award

Other finalists for the Leopold Conservation Award include Mike Berg of Blanchardville; Brian Maliszewski of Independence; Charlie Hammer and Nancy Kavazanjian of Beaver Dam; and John and Dorothy Priske of Fall River. The winner will be announced later in 2020.