Leopold Award finalist has cultivated conservation on family farm for decades

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer
Mike Berg and his family.

Blanchardville farmer Mike Berg won't take credit for jumpstarting the conservation practices on his farm – that distinction goes to his dad, who established their family farm more than 50 years ago.

Berg is a finalist for the Leopold Conservation Award, which recognizes farmers across Wisconsin for their efforts in natural resource conservation. He farms red Angus beef cattle, hogs, sheep, goats, chickens, corn, soybeans and alfalfa on 540 acres with some of that being pasture for grazing. He said he was excited to hear that he was a finalist.

"It's been a family leadership effort that started with my dad more than 50 years ago and it's continued through myself and my family to do anything that makes the farm or the land better," Berg said.

While the roots of conservation on the farm were put into motion by his dad, Berg said his family has kept up the leadership role with the only goal of making the land better for the next generation, explaining that he "doesn't own it" but that he is merely a steward of it. Berg said he works hard to keep soil on his land and prevent erosion, saying, "We don't want to send the soil down to Mississippi."

One of the projects Berg is being recognized for is the family's planting of 25,000 trees on their hundreds of acres over the decades since the family farm began. Berg said he orders the trees through local Future Farmers of America and 4-H groups, many of them walnut trees due to their value. The family planted 1,000 trees just this spring.

"On a Sunday or whatnot, (my family) just makes time to ... wake up early and plant some trees in the spring," Berg said. "You got to make time to go to church in the morning, so we make time to plant trees."

The Berg farm sits on 540 acres with corn, soybeans and alfalfa, along with a host of livestock.

Berg also installed riprapping along the edges of the fields where the Pecatonica River flows, where soil erosion is a concern due to rising water levels. He said those concerns led to the riprapping project after a heavy rainstorm a few winters ago that knocked the banks into the river due to the river's forces.

After discussing ideas with the Farm Service Agency and the Natural Resources Conservation Service of the US Department of Agriculture, rocks were placed along the banks of the river to prevent further erosion from wind and water, and the banks were brought back to a 45-degree angle. Sixteen-foot grass buffers along the waterways help reduce crop damage and improve local wildlife habitats.

"We had a February rainstorm, just a gigantic amount of rain, and the ...  banks of the Pecatonica just slid into the river, and that's when I started to FSA and NRCS about what can we do," Berg said. "And they came up with this riprap project. ... It looks really nice."

Berg also practices rotational grazing with his livestock among the pasture, which encourages grass growth and soil conservation. He said the grass won't be cut short and can rebound easily instead of dying out.

Besides the projects, Berg practices no-till agriculture and uses contour strips and cover crops in his fields. He said this is his first year planting cover crops, winter rye being his choice, because his local farmer group "Pecatonica Pride" encouraged him to try it out. He said the group focuses on sustainable farming practices and cover crops are of especially big interest recently.

Mike Berg of Blanchardville has installed riprapping along the Pecatonica River, which borders his farmland, as a way to prevent erosion.

"The emphasis is on water quality and keeping farms sustainable. The big interest in the last two months has been to get cover crops put down," Berg said. "That's why I put the cover crops in this year because Pecatonica Pride's been talking about it."

The best practices a farmer can implement, Berg said, are cover crops and smart manure application, explaining that farmers should have a nutrient management plan to make sure they are putting on just the right amount of manure and that they know which way they should spread it that works for their land type. Berg said you don't want to overapply and make wells in the soil, which can cause problems.

Berg said technological innovation from equipment manufacturers is also helping farmers implement more sustainability practices as equipment becomes more no-till friendly.

"Back in the day when we first started, you worked with what you had and herbicides were just in their infancy, so it was kind of a hit and miss, but we tried to do the best we could," Berg said. "(Now) they're making no-till equipment much better all the time. The future looks really bright."

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