Soil health farm feeds local residents in small community of Manawa

Tivoli Gough
Dan and Ruth Boerst, of Manawa, Wisconsin, farm with soil health practices to help mitigate the effects of food insecurity in their rural town of Manawa.

Dan and Ruth Boerst, of Manawa, Wisconsin, farm with soil health practices to help mitigate the effects of food insecurity in their rural American town.

They partnered with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to implement a variety of soil health and conservation practices, helping heal their land, while preparing it to be in the best condition to grow crops and produce for the local food pantry.

Dan and Ruth had the dream of owning their own dairy farm and they set out to accomplish that dream.

“We bought this 100-acre farm in 1982; Ruth grew up 5 miles down the road and we knew it was the right place; it was a bankruptcy farm and we bought it on the courthouse steps,” explained Dan.

From the start, the couple kept conservation and soil health goals at the forefront. “We’ve always been involved in implementing conservation; in the last 15 years, we’ve hosted at least one field day each year, if not more; we’re doing our best to share soil health practices that work with other farmers,” he said.

Not only does the Milpa Garden mix contain various legumes, brassicas, greens, and vine crops, it also builds
habitat for beneficial insects, pollinators and wildlife.

The couple set aside two acres of their farm for a Green Cover Milpa Garden to grow produce to help feed those in need. The Boersts also signed on as a demonstration farm, sharing conservation practices, technologies and techniques as part of the Upper-Fox-Wolf Demonstration Farms Network.

Funded through the NRCS Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, this partnership effort between NRCS and Waupaca County Land & Water Conservation established a network of ten farms across eight counties in northeast Wisconsin to demonstrate the best conservation practices to reduce phosphorus entering into the Great Lakes basin.

As the farm grew, so did the Boerst’s conservation efforts.

“We’re now farming 470 acres; in 2000, we added a free stall barn and a milking parlor,” said Dan. “We have 100 dairy cows and I also managed-graze beef cattle on a rotational system.”

Ruth Boerst moves her rotationally-grazed cattle.

The Boersts first partnered with NRCS to install grassed waterways on their property through the NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). As the couple acquired more land, through EQIP assistance, they installed four water and sediment control basins, subsurface drains and underground outlets.

The basins are a great solution to deal with excess water on the farm.

“We recently had a large rainstorm; in six hours, one of the basins was completely full and held the water well, releasing it slowly,” said Dan.

Derrick Raspor, NRCS Soil Conservationist and Demo Farm Project Coordinator, explains, “The basins help Dan farm on sloping lands, while also improving water quality by trapping sediment on uplands and preventing it from reaching the Little Wolf River. The basins also reduce gully erosion by controlling water flow within the drainage area.”

“When we acquired more acres, we heard the runoff on the new property used to turn the river red and gullies had to be filled every year,” said Dan. “The Little Wolf River is really close to us; we knew we could have a positive impact by adding conservation to the landscape.”

When the Boersts first bought the property, Ruth says it was so wet they could never plant before July.

Ruth Boerst and Derrick Raspor NRCS Soil Conservationist and Demo Farm Project Coordinator. 
view a recently planted cover crop field.

"That’s one of the many reasons why we got involved with implementing soil health and conservation practices,” she said.

The couple added no-till and cover crops to their soil health efforts. Through EQIP assistance, the Boersts are demoing various mixes of multi-species cover crops to see what works.

Dan and Ruth were researching cover crops and came across information about the Green Cover Milpa Garden. The garden is a great way to get fresh produce with minimal amounts of labor to feed communities. The Milpa technique originated in Central America where Mayans used a mixture of corn, squash and beans (known as the three sisters) to improve soil and grow food.

Going beyond the three sisters, a Green Cover Milpa Garden consists of over 50 different species of seeds, including leaf vegetables, squash, cucumbers, pumpkins, melons, beets, beans and brassicas.

“The garden is a great way for Dan and Ruth to utilize their 2-acre field next to their home. Not only does the mix contain various legumes, brassicas, greens, and vine crops, it also builds habitat for beneficial insects, pollinators and wildlife,” said Raspor.

Ruth says the bounty from the two-acre field by the house was a way for them to do something good for the community. The Boersts Milpa Garden is helping feed their community, while also building their soil nutrients, improving the microbial diversity of their soil and providing good winter cover as a cover crop—increasing their overall soil health.

Dan Boerst shows some of the bounty from the Milpa Garden.

“When we saw the Milpa Garden opportunity, I first connected with Manawa Food Pantry. Now that the garden is thriving, I dropped off a harvest of radishes and turnips last summer,” explained Ruth. “I’ve also talked with two local daycares that are willing to take produce whenever we have it. They are excited to get some pumpkins from us too.”

Milpa Gardens are known as chaos gardens because they are a mix of everything.

“The garden has been an excellent way for Dan and Ruth to utilize a small portion of their land to produce food without the hassle of tillage, weeding and garden row planning,” said Matt Brugger, Demo Farm Project Manager.

The garden has had a positive effect on local Manawa residents. One of the acres of seed was provided to Dan free of charge with the agreement to donate produce to the local food pantry.

“With Dan and Ruth’s success, and 9 other farms in the network, this is something we plan to look into for other farms, as a way to expand community involvement and help feed residents,” added Raspor.

“We love that we are growing so many beneficial plants for the food pantry and many of the species, like the sunflowers, are beneficial for insects too. We are seeing so many more butterflies and other pollinators,” added Ruth.

The Boersts also partnered with NRCS to set up a managed rotational grazing system on 22 acres of pasture, including writing a managed grazing plan, installing fencing and livestock pipeline, completing a forage and biomass planting and prescribed grazing.

“If you are looking to see many different conservation practices in action that work towards a regenerative soil health system, this is the farm to visit when they hold field days,” said Raspor.

Dan and Ruth have also participated in the NRCS Conservation Stewardship Program, completing split applications of nitrogen based on testing, using drift reducing nozzles to reduce pesticide drift and completing plant tissue testing and analysis to improve nitrogen management, targeting nitrogen where it’s really needed.

Ruth and Dan Boerst, farm owners, check Milpa Garden growth at their Manawa farm.

The Boersts have seen many positive impacts since implementing soil health practices on their land.

“Last fall was rainy; no one around us could get their corn silage off. Because of our no-till and cover crop efforts, we had no problems harvesting; I didn’t even have to put the chopper in 4-wheel drive.”

“Even in the spring, planters are here first because they know they can go in without getting stuck,” said Ruth. adding the proof is in their soil.

Dan and Ruth plan to continue their soil health efforts, while helping feed their community. They’ve raised three kids, Sarah, Dusty and Adam, on the farm and have six grandkids; they want to keep the land healthy for future generations.

“I get up at 3:30am every morning to keep doing this—it’s my passion and just the way I am. We want to leave all our soil in better health than when we got it,” said Dan.

Everything the Boersts continue to do for conservation gives NRCS hope that farmers can continue to make a difference at the local level for all of us, one bite of chaos garden produce at a time.