Farmer group’s water quality efforts pick up steam
LUXEMBURG - Peninsula Pride Farms has driven significant awareness, collaboration and innovation in conservation efforts throughout Kewaunee and southern Door counties since its launch two years ago.
The group’s leaders say they have talked the talk and are increasingly walking the walk in their mission to protect and improve water quality.
“When we started out, we wanted to provide a face to represent farmers in the area and we wanted to prove to the community that we care about conservation efforts,” Don Niles, president of Peninsula Pride Farms, told more than 100 farmers, community members and business representatives attending the group’s second annual conference and member meeting Jan. 31 at the Rendezvous Banquet Hall.
“We believe we can have safe water along with a thriving, successful agricultural community,” said Niles, co-owner of Dairy Dreams, a farm in Casco.
Those at the meeting received an update on the organization’s activities in 2017, its goals for 2018 and how local farmers, agencies and communities are working together for environmental outcomes.
The farmer-led nonprofit organization was formed in March 2016 to address agriculture’s role in water quality challenges in a region with unique geography. Some parts of the counties have shallow soil levels on top of fractured karst bedrock, which means pathogens from cow manure on the surface can sometimes quickly reach groundwater and drinking-water wells. The group also focuses on keeping nutrients from running off fields into streams and rivers.
Steve Richter, state program director for The Nature Conservancy, said Peninsula Pride is an example of what can happen when farmers, agencies and the community come together and work toward positive environmental outcomes.
“Peninsula Pride has accomplished a lot in just two years and that’s thanks to the dedication of its farmers,” he said. “At The Nature Conservancy, we recognize farmers are vital in the goal of being able to produce more food, but do it in a sustainable way. Farmers need to be part of the solution.”
In its short life, Peninsula Pride has moved aggressively in establishing programs and finding resources to mitigate farming’s impact on water.
The efforts are wide-ranging:
- Analyzing nitrogen and phosphorus loss to tile drainage systems and exploring nitrogen use efficiency in projects with UW Discovery Farms.
- Partnering with USDA’s Natural Resources and Conservation Service on a new Door-Kewaunee Demonstration Farms Network where farmers experiment with cutting-edge practices.
- Cooperating with an industry partner to evaluate potential for probiotics to reduce the levels of pathogens excreted in manure.
- Mapping soil depth and sinkholes to identify sensitive areas.
- Developing an education program about pathogens in the environment in partnership with health care systems and the agricultural industry.
- Providing clean water, well inspections and assistance with remedies to homeowners who report E. coli contamination in wells (regardless of whether manure is the source).
- Supporting the use of cover crops to keep the soil in place and healthy.
- Holding field days to showcase the best practices to other farmers and to the public.
Feeding the soil
Improving soil health not only reduces erosion, it provides farmers with improved crop yields, said Nick Guilette of AgSource Laboratories and a member of the Peninsula Pride Farms board of directors.
“Area farmers have embraced using cover crops and no-till practices, which makes a difference by increasing the soil’s organic matter and providing better infiltration,” Guilette said. “You do not see improvements overnight, but consistent use of cover crops does make a difference.”
A survey conducted by Peninsula Pride found more members are interested in cover crops. In 2016, with financial support from the group, cover crops were planted on 5,104 acres. With farmers paying the bill themselves in 2017, they planted 10,533 acres, said Nathen Nysse of Tilth Agronomy, who also serves on the Peninsula Pride board.
“In 2018, farmers tell us they plan to use cover crops even more,” he said.
Peninsula Pride members also explore innovative techniques for applying manure. At a field day in September, farmers observed demonstrations with several pieces of equipment that injected liquid manure into the ground while only minimally disturbing the soil. The goal is to keep the fertilizer in place so there’s no runoff.
Last fall, Kewaunee County approved a new, low pressure-drip manure irrigation rule, which provides farmers more options, Davina Bonness, Kewaunee County’s conservationist, said.
“Being able to irrigate the manure more than just in the spring and fall is a big benefit to farmers,” she said. “We will monitor what happens but feel it provides farmers with more options, such as being able to apply on a growing crop.”
This way, the nutrients are taken up by the plant roots and prevented from reaching groundwater or running off the field into surface water.
The farmers’ spirit of innovation impresses Dennis Frame of Timber Ridge Consulting, who developed UW Discovery Farms and works closely with Peninsula Pride and other farmer-led watershed groups.
“What I love about working with farmers is that they are open to trying out new things,” Frame said.
Tony Brey of Brey Cycle Farm in Sturgeon Bay said being a part of Peninsula Pride Farms and the demonstration farms network has been a great experience.
“People are willing to share information about what worked for them and maybe what didn’t,” he said. “Everyone comes from a different place, so it is good to share those experiences.”
The innovative farming practices pushed by Peninsula Pride continue to spread. Among members who responded to a survey about their attempts at conservation practices in 2017:
- 81 percent tried a new conservation practice, including cover crops, no-till, interseeding and low-disturbance manure spreading.
- 90 percent implemented no-till or strip-till planting.
- 29 percent considered composting for manure management.
- 57 percent researched leachate collection systems, which collect and safely distribute rainwater.
- 57 percent considered using low-disturbance manure application practices.