Cultivating Farmer Leadership
for Better Water Quality in the St. Croix River Basin
University of Wisconsin-Extension
- AFarmer-Led Approach
- Farmer-led watershed councils are groups of farmers learning about their watersheds and finding ways to improve water quality and farm performance. Our project is based on the Hewitt Creek Model for Performance-based Farm and Watershed Environmental Management, from Iowa State University Extension. Work in Iowa has shown that when farmers become aware of water quality impairments by being part of the design and implementation of monitoring efforts, the problem becomes internalized – they can see how it relates to them and their farm (Figure 1). Farmers can then set performance-based goals to remedy the problem that are tailored both to their farming system and to the problem. Regular monitoring, progress evaluation, and goal-setting keeps the farmer council evolving and trying new conservation techniques.
- Source: ISU Extension
- UW-Extension and the county land conservation departments provide technical support and other resources to the council. But farmer-to-farmer sharing and leadership is a critical element to diffuse new technologies and encourage farmers to take risks and try new things.
- Working Together
- A key strength of the project is the number of partners participating, including:
- University of Wisconsin Extension
- Dunn County Land Conservation Department
- Pierce County Land Conservation Department
- Polk County Land Conservation Department
- St. Croix County Land Conservation Department
- Wisconsin Farmers Union
- Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
- Distinct Watersheds, Distinct Strategies
- The four pilot watersheds range in size from around 8,000-20,000 tillable acres. Topographical differences mean farming systems are different. Dry Run Creek, in St. Croix County, a sub-watershed of the Willow River/St. Croix Basin, is relatively flat. Farms there are generally larger, and row crops dominate. In contrast, the Big Beaver watershed, part of the Red Cedar River Basin in Dunn and Baron counties, has much hillier terrain. Farms are smaller and there is more livestock integrated into grain production systems. These different landscapes require different outreach approaches. Questions we ask ourselves as part of crafting a watershed approach include:
- Who is influential within the farming community?
- What do farmers in the watershed perceive as problems?
- What is the farmers’ history of interaction with government agencies? What has or hasn’t worked in the past?
- Who is already a leader? Who might like to be?
Figure 3: Edge-of-field monitor stations measure surface water nutrients, sediment, and quantity
Figure 2: The Dry Run Creek Watershed Council, meeting at the Erin Prairie Town Hall
Promoting Continuous Living Cover
Getting more continuous living cover on the landscape – in the form of cover crops and perennial grain and forage crops – is an important strategy for better water quality. Farmers need successful models of CLC adoption to learn from and be inspired. By working with a broad range of farmers who utilize different approaches to farming (beef and dairy graziers, grain farmers that grow cover crops or perennial third crops), and encouraging those farmers to take on leadership roles, we promote farmer-to-farmer sharing and education around CLC strategies that work. As the farmer councils develop conservation incentives programs beginning in spring of 2014, they’ll have the opportunity to decide to incentivize experimentation with cover crops and other CLC strategies. Reducing the risk to farmers as they try new techniques can encourage more CLC adoption.
- In 2013, the councils have focused on monitoring and understanding the watersheds and water impairments. Activities have included:
- Watershed council formation and meetings (Figure 2)
- Edge-of-field monitoring station installations (Figure 3)
- Farm field soil sampling to assess P runoff potential
- Streambank and streambed soil sampling to assess non-ag P sources
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