Jeff Pfeuti recalled his anxiety when February rainstorms blasted the frozen ground and caused flooding throughout southern Wisconsin.
He hopped into his truck and surveyed his farm fields west of Albany. In this part of Green County, flat farmland begins to give way to low bluffs and rolling hills.
Pfeuti noticed gullies on other farmers’ fields where water had washed away the soil. He feared he would find the same destruction on his steep, hillside land.
But his fields escaped with relatively little damage thanks to his cover crops. Their roots held the soil in place and minimized erosion in spite of the downpour, he said.
“You don’t see ponds of water out here. The roots spread it out, and it goes in the ground instead of running off,” Pfeuti said. “I was ecstatic about how it worked.”
Cover crops are a key strategy for Pfeuti and the Farmers of the Sugar River. The loosely affiliated network of local farmers is one of 19 producer-led watershed groups getting funding through a state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection program.
Watershed groups are meant to improve water quality and began receiving state funding in 2016. A handful already were in place before then, and the Legislature felt a statewide program would get more farmers interested in conservation efforts, said Rachel Rushmann, a DATCP nutrient management coordinator.
The state allocates money to watershed groups through local coordinators. They collaborate with local farmers to determine how to spend money on conservation practices.
Those practices often adhere to environmental standards stricter than required by Wisconsin statutes. Instead of tightening statewide regulations, DATCP thought allowing farmers to drive change would improve buy-in, Rushmann said.
“We really want them to be able to choose which practices in their watershed are most effective at their local watershed level,” she said. “I think because it’s voluntary, it’s opened a door of communication that hasn’t really been there before.”
How it works
A few participating farmers have used cover crops such as rye, oats or winter wheat on their fields for years. But it’s still not a widely adopted or refined technique, said Dan Truttmann.
Truttmann is a dairy farmer who grows corn and soybeans on his farm northwest of New Glarus. He’s located on the outer fringes of the watershed, but along with Pfeuti and a few other farmers, he’s helped lead the group toward a healthier Sugar River.
The connection between water quality and cover crops grown miles from the river might not be obvious, but all the runoff within a watershed eventually drains into the main body of water, effectively turning each shed into a giant basin.
Having some kind of cover crop on the soil all year creates a strong, healthy soil structure. This reduces runoff and retains nutrients within the soil, Truttmann said.
Weaker soil is more prone to rain-inflicted damage that washes away its nutrients. To help this ground regain its depleted health, a farmer would have to pepper the soil with more chemical inputs, increasing costs and adding potential contaminants to the watershed, he said.
“If you’re able to retain nutrients and keep them on the farm, that’s fewer dollars that need to be spent to replace lost nutrients,” Truttmann said.
“In a year where Mother Nature isn’t quite as generous with the rain, or even in a fairly normal year with drier periods … if we’re able to capture and hold that water, we can much more easily get through dry spells. That’s better for crop yields.”
When Pfeuti is ready to plant his primary crops of corn and soybeans, he sprays the cover crops to kill them and waits a week to let them die. Then he plants his corn and beans directly among the dead plants, he said.
The roots of the dead plants keep the soil loose—but not too loose so as to risk rain damage—which minimizes the need to till. Too much tilling can wreck the soil structure and exacerbate nutrient loss, Pfeuti said.
Farmers of the Sugar River initially requested $16,500 from DATCP. But widespread interest caused the agency to receive about $620,000 in grant requests, far more than the $250,000 originally allocated in the state budget, Rushmann said.
When the Legislature upped funding to $750,000, all watershed groups that met program criteria received their full requests. The money is used to purchase cover crop seeds or rent equipment, such as no-till planters. It can also pay for administrative costs or educational workshops, she said.
Those workshops and informal meetings can help farmers share their ideas. The information-sharing network is the backbone of the Farmers of the Sugar River.
Pfeuti said farmers are never too old to learn something new. Through the years, he’s figured out how to more effectively manage his cover crops.
Through trial and error, he realized winter rye is too thick to plant over with corn and soybeans. He now mixes oats with his rye to thin out the cover and make the ground more penetrable, he said.
Farmers of the Sugar River has provided some structure to exchange these ideas. But the watershed group prefers to keep its affiliation loose—there are no membership dues, and farmers are free to use the ideas without applying for funding.
Those who do apply for and receive funding generally get $500 each, Truttmann said.
The meetings are so informal that the group doesn’t have an official number of participants. About 70 people showed up to a meeting in February, said Tonya Gratz, a Green County conservation technician who also serves as the group’s local coordinator.
Giving farmers agency
Gratz manages the group’s finances and passes along research and resources. But she prefers to stay in the background as much as she can to preserve the farmer-to-farmer nature of the group, she said.
Mark Riedel, a state Department of Natural Resources liaison to the group, shares the same mentality. Letting the farmers take control of environmental stewardship is better than state-imposed standards, he said.
Riedel didn’t comment on why the Legislature decided to embrace farmer-led programs while rolling back regulations. But he said it was hard to write environmental policies that could apply to all farms because of the diversity of agriculture.
“What we’re trying to do is change the way we’ve historically done business. Rather than a top-down, agency-led level, we want it to be more farmer-led,” he said. “Hearing what the farmers think will best protect the soil and work for them on a particular farm, trying to get away from the one-size-fits-all approach and trying to encourage local solutions.”
As evidence that farmer-driven solutions could improve water quality in the Sugar River, Riedel shared a 2016 U.S. Geological Survey report that examined watersheds across Wisconsin. The Sugar River report covers 1915 to 2008 and shows trends of increased low flow and decreased peak flood discharge.
Low flow measures water flow in a river during dry periods. If it is increasing, that indicates rainfall has replenished the groundwater to help the river withstand droughts. And because the soil is retaining more water, there was less runoff and fewer floods, Riedel said.
Though the data ended before Farmers of the Sugar River began, it could gauge the effectiveness of cover crops because some farmers in the area have been using the strategies for years, he said.
Rushmann said DATCP plans on devising a system that tracks the progress and success of all participating watershed groups. If the groups show success, it would prevent the need for additional regulations.
“The voluntary effort they’re doing right now is ahead of regulations. If things don’t change or don’t improve, regulations could come forward,” she said. “Then they’re going to be dictated what they need to do to improve water quality.
“I don’t think that’s an effective solution for anybody. It’s (watershed groups) a proactive approach, and it’s not a response to regulations coming down.”
The Sugar River is popular for fishing, tubing and canoeing. Pfeuti said it’s up to farmers to keep the watershed healthy and preserve its status as a summer recreation spot.
Achieving that goal has more credibility when farmers, not state agents, are driving the change, Truttmann said.
So the farmers from operations large and small will continue to meet to learn how to best improve water quality and soil health.
“It’s important to get a pulse of what’s really important not only to our group and how to accomplish our goals but how to best fit the needs of local farmers,” Truttmann said. “You get a lot more buy-in from the farmer and a lot more enthusiasm, especially when it’s farmer- and producer-led. The excitement at our meetings when we get together to discuss this stuff is really noticeable.”