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The farmers we have

We revere the ideal farmer, the steward. He is the person who cares for his patch of land, harvesting an annual crop, but maintaining its fertility. He is not the short-term exploiter, but, instead, the big-picture individual who grabs a handful of dirt, sniffs it and senses the future in it. This ideal farmer is an environmentalist in mud boots and a hoodie. He is a citizen of the world, living in a community with deer, songbirds and racoons. He works in synchrony with nature.

But then there is the actual farmer. He is the person who has a pile of bills on his kitchen table. He can’t see a future. He only knows today. This is the person who lets his field fertility slip to save some money. He lets his machinery and buildings fall into disrepair. He has to. This farmer, tired and overworked, is no citizen of the world. He occupies a tiny corner of his rural neighborhood. He fights to survive.

Sometimes we want to engage the ideal farmer but the actual farmer shows up. Things don’t go so well.

That seems to have happened to Marathon County in its Fenwood Creek Watershed Project, a three-year targeted effort to clean-up ag pollution starting with a small slice of the Big Eau Pleine watershed.

On Sunday, Ken Pozorski, a county conservation staff worker, told the Big Eau Pleine Citizen Organization that the Fenwood Creek Watershed Project failed in its first phase to reduce phosphorus run-off and soil sediment by its stated goal of 45 percent. The project, after spending $237,000, realized about half those reductions.

The reason for this failure is simple. Farmers didn’t engage. The watershed project, which has been largely state funded, had $740,000 in cost-sharing money to incentivize farmers to install manure pits, barnyard enclosures and feed leachate systems. The county, after three years of trying, could only spend $104,000 of that sum. Actual farmers refused the bait.

We don’t fault the county for attempting the Fenwood Creek Watershed Project. But let the last three years be a teaching moment. Both the state and county government should heed some lessons.

The first is to design any future county conservation programs not for the ideal farmers we want, but for the actual farmers we have. Program leaders need to recognize these farmers, fighting to stay in business, can’t put land stewardship as their top priority. They have other, more pressing problems. In 1935, Wisconsin had 180,695 dairies. In 2017, that number had dwindled to 9,520. Government must understand that even 90 percent cost sharing on a conservation project isn’t enough to get a farmer to do things in this cutthroat environment.

Second, a conservation program needs to follow science. The Fenwood Creek Watershed’s pollution problem is mile after mile of conventionally tilled, row-cropped corn and soybeans and, only to a lesser extent, messy barnyards and dairies without manure storage. The row cropping is susceptible to erosion, especially in this era of extreme weather. Yet state funding for the Fenwood Watershed Project didn’t track this truth. Instead, it was more about building concrete structures and not enough about changing cropping practices. A future Fenwood Creek Watershed Project needs to address the pollution problem that is everywhere, not the lapses of a few individuals.

A final lesson is that programs, to be successful, must be flexible. Early on, farmers in the Fenwood Creek Watershed indicated interest in environmentally friendly cropping techniques, including no-till and cover crops, but not enough program resources could get switched to meet this need. That’s poor. Every conservation program is an experiment. You have to make adjustments to get optimal results.

We expect Marathon County will not give up on the Fenwood Creek Watershed Project and, hopefully, it can go forward having learned some things.

We must remember, however, that any Fenwood Creek Watershed project not only has to reduce phosphorus and soil sediment by 45 percent but, to meet science-based DNR water quality goals, it has to double these reductions. Farmers need to reduce phosphorus run-off by 80 to 90 percent. This is the only way to clean-up the Big Eau Pleine Reservoir.

This is a daunting task, perhaps beyond what voluntary programs can accomplish. In any case, the county must go forward without illusions. It must deal with the farmers we have.