An Agate Original
“People say the farmers are the ones who can save Green Bay, and it’s really true,” said Jim Snitgen, Water Resources Supervisor for the Oneida Nation.
His office, in the tribe’s Little Bear Development Building thirteen miles from Green Bay, is decorated with aerial photos of streams and farm fields. A table holds vials of aquatic critters preserved in clear liquid, and his desk is stacked with binders detailing several stream restoration projects.
Green Bay suffers from too much phosphorus, which contributes to blue-green algae, or Cyanobacteria. These bacteria can turn the water a disgusting shade of green, smell bad, and produce poisons that can sicken people and kill animals. When the algae die off they can rob oxygen from other life in the water, killing fish and other aquatic life.
Several small streams carry excess nutrients from farm fields into the Fox River, which flows into Green Bay. One of them, Silver Creek, is the focus of a pilot project designed to answer a crucial question: whether farmers can reduce their pollution enough to help the bay, while remaining profitable. The project lies within the boundaries of the Oneida reservation, and more than half the land is owned by the tribe, which leases a lot of its land to non-tribal growers.
“We require all our renters to follow best management practices, and we’re delighted to work with other partners to get more farmers on board,” Snitgen said.
The project began downstream, at the treatment plant handling the city of Green Bay’s wastewater. The Metropolitan Sewerage District got word from the state of Wisconsin that it would be required to cut back drastically on the phosphorus in the effluent it discharges into the bay. A 2012 state plan requires all industries along the Fox River to cut their phosphorus and suspended solids by about half. That plan also calculated that farms in the watershed contribute nearly half of the nearly 275 tons of phosphorus, and more than half of the suspended solids, deposited yearly in the basin.
The new state requirement pushed the district to do some creative thinking. “It would have forced us to make a hundred-million-dollar investment in additional filtering over the next five to ten years,” said Jeff Smudde, Watershed Programs Manager at the district, now branded NEW Water. “Our ratepayers don’t like sudden spikes in their bills.”
And that investment would do little to solve the overall problem. “Our reduction would have removed less than 1% of the total phosphorus in the system,” said the district’s Watershed Specialist, Erin Houghton. “Removing phosphorus upstream in the system would offer far more ecological gain.”
So the district worked out an “adaptive management plan” with the state, and now, instead of building a new treatment plant, it’s helping farmers reduce their share of the pollution. “We think we can reduce much more phosphorus this way, at much lower cost,” said Smudde.
Working with an organization with no experience in agriculture, Houghton and Smudde recruited a team of experts—extension agents, crop consultants, county soil and water conservation workers—to help run the pilot.
In 2014, the experiment began with an assessment of the existing water quality, using data from five monitoring sites along tiny Silver Creek, and a baseline inventory of the 100-plus fields in the 7.5 square mile sub-watershed. The team walked every field, studying the lay of the land, surveying soil types, identifying areas that looked particularly vulnerable to erosion. They took thousands of soil samples—a sample on each 2.5-acre segment of each field.
“Walking the fields, we had an agronomist, staff from the county conservation office, someone from the Oneida Nation, often an expert from the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service,” Houghton recalled. “They all said many of them had walked these fields before but had never paid attention to the things that somebody else brought up on these walks. The agronomist was always looking at pests, and never paid attention to the fact that they needed a buffer on the stream, and so on.”
A key team member is Nikki Raimer, an engineering technician with the Outagamie County Land Conservation Department. She is excited about the pilot project because it focuses concentrated attention on a small area. “Typically, there aren’t enough boots on the ground,” she said. NEW Water pays her salary. Raimer is credited with persuading some reluctant land owners to participate. “It can be hard to take a risk,” she acknowledged. “And they don’t want to hear anyone telling them what they have to do. It’s their farm. I would go out and just listen to their frustrations and concerns. Farmers are getting hit right now with low milk prices, so a lot of them are scared to step out and try something new. But I’d listen to their issues and come up with an answer for them, or help them get to their own answer to benefit their farm.”
Raimer’s respectful interest paid off. Ninety-percent of the farmers and landowners agreed to participate in the pilot project and to try various BMPs. “Last winter we had 90-percent of the watershed in cover crops,” Smudde said proudly. When they started, it was only 30-percent.
Cover crops are among the most widely used of the BMPs. They reduce erosion and nutrient pollution by keeping the soil covered and the nutrients near the root zone. Other methods include low-till or no-till farming, in which seeds are planted through the residue of last year’s crop, enabling the soil to remain covered year-round; converting sloping and easily-eroded lands from row crops to rotational grazing, which also keeps the land covered; and planting buffer strips of grasses or perennials along streams to capture nutrients before they reach the water.
The problem is, all these methods work differently depending on soil conditions, crop type, climate and weather. There are many variables, and few controlled studies, so researchers have been unable to pinpoint with confidence how well they work. Russell Kreis, a retired EPA Great Lakes researcher, said it’s been frustrating not to have that kind of scientific rigor. “It’s crucial that given the problems we’re seeing from nutrient pollution, not only across the country but in the world, that we get a handle on this and do things right,” he said.
Randy Roes is a fifty-something cement worker with meaty arms and strong hands. His full beard is framed by suspenders over a brown T-shirt, and a cammo cap is pressed firmly on his head. He lives on the 25-acre farm where as a youngster he used to visit his grandfather, who raised oats and hay, chickens, a few pigs and a steer. Roes has been renting out a 15-acre field to neighbors who need more land to grow corn. But lately it’s been hard to find anyone who wants to deal with his small spread. “With the big equipment these days, they have a hard time turning around in such a small field,” he said with a generous belly-laugh. When Nikki Raimer invited him to participate in the project, it made sense to him to turn the field into a native prairie that would attract pollinators and deer. “There’s quite a few deer around here—except when you’re hunting; then you can’t find any,” he said, and offered another big laugh.
The first step was to clear out a drainage ditch that divided the field. As a child he watched when the ditch was dug. It was designed to drain the field, but over the years trees had grown up, killing the grass and trapping water on the land. “You get all the little branches falling and they make all those little dams, you get water sitting,” he explained. Last fall after the ditch was cleared, a crew came and seeded both fields with native grasses and perennials. On the day I visited, squadrons of butterflies, including the occasional monarch, visited the blooms of Black-Eyed Susan, Ox-eye Sunflower and Goldenrod.
Roes feels some sadness at letting the real farming go. “One day it struck me,” he said: “I’ve got a little spring-tooth plow back there; I pulled it out and realized, ‘I can’t even use that anymore!’” But he’s glad to be finished with one of the chores that came with renting out his field: “A lot of times the tractor would carry mud off the field, so when I’d come home from work I’d help the grower clean the mud off the road. We aren’t going to have that problem anymore! I figure if the land is in this program, that’ll help—somewhat—to clean up the waterways. It should help.”
Farm of the future
The Diederich farm is a picture-perfect dairy with several barns and five gleaming silos. The family and a couple of helpers milk 550 cows on “the closest dairy farm to Lambeau Field,” Dan Diederich says proudly. Technically, it’s the robot that milks the cows, while the humans do the support work. In addition to the milkers, there are 500 heifers, and about a thousand acres of alfalfa, corn and wheat. Dan sports a blue button-down shirt with Eagle Scout cufflinks, a blue vest, blue shoelaces on tennis shoes, and blue hair. With his University of Wisconsin degree in dairy science and business, he is determined to make the farm profitable, and equally determined to help people understand the challenges farmers face.
A few years ago, the family switched to no-till farming, partly to reduce fuel use, but Dan stresses that they lucked out when they made the switch. “For a lot of farmers, the ability to change is limited by their equipment: even if they want to do things differently, they may not be able to afford a new plow, Dan said. “Generally, farmers only replace equipment every 15 or 20 years. And all the equipment is sized to work together, so if you introduce something different, you’ve got to replace everything.” When the Diederichs switched, their tractor happened to work for the new method of inter-planting cover crops with corn.
Many farmers are nervous about trying cover crops—they worry they may keep the soil from warming and drying in the spring, when it’s time to get out and plant. Dan is confident he and his dad have figured out a workable system. “In early summer, when the corn is about a foot high, we use the inter-seeder to plant the cover crop. It grows slowly in the shade of the corn. In the fall we harvest the corn and leave the cover there through the winter. In the spring we plant corn, kill the cover crop, and then plant the cover crop again.” They can’t leave the cover on the field year-round because it would rob water and nutrients from the corn and get in the way of the corn harvest. Dan said using Roundup to kill the cover crop doesn’t harm water quality because it breaks down quickly.
With the pilot project, the Diederichs are improving ditches in some fields, digging them deeper and planting grass, to improve drainage and reduce runoff. Separately, they are about to move their heifers out of the barn and onto pasture. The young animals will be concentrated in relatively small paddocks and moved frequently. This forces them to eat less selectively, which produces greater plant diversity and more continuous cover. It improves soil structure, which allows more rainfall to penetrate the soil rather than running off. more complete vegetative cover and improved soil structure that will allow a higher percentage of the rainfall to infiltrate the soil where it can be used for plant growth rather than running off
Dan figures the pasturing will amount to a little less work over the course of a year. “All summer long I won’t have to manage manure, mucking out the barn, scraping pens. I won’t have to harvest as much feed because they’ll be on pasture all summer. In winter I’ll have to feed them, but we do that now. I will have to go out and move fencing. When it’s raining, this will seem like the worst idea ever, but when it’s sunny and I’m out there in the morning just moving fencing under the bright blue sky, it’ll be great!”
Dan is excited about the pilot project. “It’s totally voluntary, and nobody’s blaming anybody for anything,” he said. “It’s amazing what we can accomplish as a society when we stop fighting and ask, ‘what do we actually want to do?’ As long as can agree on the goal, we can work out the details.”
Nearly half of NEW Water’s expenses in the pilot project are paid for through grants, primarily a $1.67 million grant from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a federal program that funds protection and restoration projects around the region. The project reimburses farmers their out-of-pocket expenses for improving ditches, planting cover crops, and setting up rotational grazing systems. If they take farmland out of production to install a buffer or filter strip along the stream they receive a $3500 per acre incentive payment. In return, those features are attached to the farmer’s deed, so if they sell their land, the new owner is expected to keep them in place.
The short-term goal of the project is to learn whether New Water can work with partners, get landowner participation, and improve water quality. Five years isn’t much time to clean up a stream, but the ultimate goal of adaptive management is to bring Silver Creek up to the state’s water quality standard for phosphorus. NEW Water’s Jeff Smudde says the project has cost about one million dollars yearly for the last four years. That’s a lot cheaper than $100 million for a new treatment plant. And how well is it all working?
The project promises to provide extensive data about how well various agricultural practices work to reduce polluted farm runoff. The baseline measurements taken in the year before the BMPs were undertaken offer more experimental rigor than most studies can provide.
Those five monitors along Silver Creek are tracking water quality. So far, the results are mixed. In 2016, three of the monitors showed phosphorus reductions, one stayed essentially the same and one showed a slight increase. In 2017 the area was drenched with what felt like endless rainfall, soaking the fields and making them more vulnerable to runoff. The phosphorus numbers went up, but NEW Water’s Erin Houghton is not discouraged. “I was very happy to see that even with a very wet year we never even approached the concentrations we saw before we started installing these best management practices,” she said.
Houghton is also delighted that the pilot is sparking interest among neighbors. “Farmers from the surrounding area are coming to field days where they can see what’s going on; they’re asking questions, even asking when we’re coming to their neighborhoods,” she said.
She believes the participating farmers are encouraged by visible improvements in filtration, by the ability of certain cover crops to dry fields more quickly in the spring, and by a lighter workload. Not plowing in the fall means not having to break up the field in the spring, and the inter-seeder can add fertilizer along with seeding. “Their saving in fuel and time in the field is tremendous,” she said.
Jim Snitgen is also expecting good results. He does the bio-monitoring in Silver Creek, collecting samples of the plant and animal life in the stream. He’s found some of the key species that are indicators of water quality: caddisflies, mayflies, stoneflies, even a new variety this year that hadn’t been seen here before. “I think we’ll see the numbers go up as we go along; we’ll see healthier populations,” he said.
NEW Water plans to expand the project soon to cover two adjacent watersheds, multiplying the size by ten. That huge increase will probably mean the team of experts will need to be selective, directing their efforts to land where new farming practices can be expected to make a significant improvement in water quality.
The idea of the sanitary district covering farmers’ expenses as they clean up water makes sense to Dan Diederich. “It’s an economically feasible way to get change done faster,” he said. “In baseball you don’t care who scores the run, and here too, we’re going for an end result.”