Conservationist Jim VandenBrook at Chautauqua Barn Dance

Bob Schuh
Special Contributor

Longtime Wisconsin conservationist Jim VandenBrook will be featured Sept. 16 at the 2017 Chautauqua Barn Dance at Saxon Homestead, 15621 S. Union Road, Cleveland.

VandenBrook has been involved in conservation for 35 years, as county conservationist in Vernon and Trempeleau counties in the mid-1980s, followed by 26 years at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. More recently, he's been involved with the nonprofit Wisconsin Land+Water.

Jim VandenBrook

While many of the resource issues remain from the 1970s and 1980s, VandenBrook said the “volume is louder now."

"One challenge is that people in agriculture today are really segmented with all its changes — expanding operations versus staying small, with the biggest squeeze on middle-sized farms,” he noted.

VandenBrook said he’s hopeful because landowners are more aware of how their land practices impact air and water quality.

"These farmers face a lot of pressure making decisions about how to manage their land and work with their neighbors," he said. "Foremost in their minds is their understanding how they impact the environment and the need for a watershed approach.

“When I first began working in 1983, the focus was on soil conservation," VandenBrook continued. "Now, we know so much more about the connection between agriculture and water quality and quantity, and the impacts on groundwater from animal waste releasing pathogens, phosphorus and nitrates, and acute public health issues.

“This is an enormous switch affecting our land and water conservation departments," he said. "We now see ordinances and a regulatory component. We still prefer voluntary compliance wherever possible. We have fewer operators to work with today. But one constant is that people are people and the best approach is to treat them with respect and understand where they are coming from.

“Conservation doesn’t have a finish line," VandenBrook said. "Agriculture is different today and is ever changing. How do you adapt conservation practices in a changing environment? You have to be grounded in science and what impacts the air, land and water.”

His vision for the future with baby boomers leaving the stage?

“Partnerships with nonprofit organizations and private citizens are essential with conservation staffs declining," he said. "If you don’t do that, the work doesn’t get done.”

With more women getting involved in a field once dominated by men, VandenBrook is hopeful about the future. More than 50 percent of those completing Wisconsin Land+Water’s conservation training program are female.

VandenBrook founded the Food, Land and Water Initiative Project to bring together all interested stakeholders, “to look beyond the present moment, see the big picture, and think about our shared resources in a more systematic and collaborative way.”

A discussion about Wisconsin Land+Water will be a focus of his Chautauqua appearance.

The Sept. 16 event at Saxon Homestead benefits the Lakeshore Natural Resource Partnership, Gathering Waters, and the Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy and Livestock Farmers. Visit for tickets and details.