Local farm group works toward sustainability
By Kana Coonce
PORTAGE/WAUPACA COUNTY – Sustainability has been a hot topic in recent years, but it can sometimes feel distant, out-of-reach to the average person.
Aiming to change this perception, the Farmers for Tomorrow Watershed Council (FTWC) is a group of farmers in North Central Wisconsin who hope to improve groundwater quality in the local watershed through education about and the implementation of responsible and sustainable farming practices.
Wisconsin’s myriad of environmental regions – from thick forests to spanning wetlands – each come with their own types of soils. For central Wisconsin, farmers primarily deal with sandy loam, a soil that, while easy to till, struggles to retain a majority of the nutrients and moisture it receives.
In order to effectively grow crops, farmers must imbue the soil with as much organic matter as they can, allowing these nutrients to return to the soil and, in so doing, fertilize future crops. Crops grown in nutrient-rich soil absorb these nutrients, in turn providing more health benefits when consumed by humans.
Of course, as with everything, farming requires a careful balance. Too much nitrogen can harm crops just as much as too little nitrogen, but it also runs the risk of contaminating local water supplies when it drains through the area’s porous soils. When too much nitrogen enters a water supply – for example, the water body from which FTWC gets its name, the Tomorrow River, also known by its Menominee name of the Waupaca River – the organisms that grow from these nitrates can crowd the water supply, decreasing the amount of oxygen available to native fish populations.
“Think of it like a pint glass,” says Matt Hintz, a first-generation farmer and the founder of FTWC. “If you put too many ounces in it, it will overflow.”
Fish aren’t the only organisms impacted by an overabundance of nitrates in a water supply. When consumed in too high of quantities, nitrates can have adverse effects on human health, ranging from weakness and fatigue to birth defects.
As of 2016, according to a water quality evaluation published by the WDNR, excess nitrates entering groundwater were the greatest threat to the water quality of the Tomorrow-Waupaca Watershed. In an agriculturally rich region like central Wisconsin, much of these nitrates come from fertilizer and animal waste.
Hintz says that the times are changing when it comes to farming methods. These changes, he says, will be a requirement for all farmers eventually. “I would rather be on the front end of that,” he says.
Not everyone feels the same. Farmers accustomed to old, less-sustainable farming methods are hesitant to adopt new practices, particularly when the ones they’re used to have served them well enough over the years.
“It’s tough in our area,” says Ben Turzinski, a farmer and member of the FTWC, citing the requirements of the local cannery as one potential obstacle for well-intentioned farmers.
“It’s hard to change the mindset of how we always used to do it.”
In addition, every crop has its own set of needs, some of which have steeper learning curves than others.
However, Turzinski emphasizes the importance of giving these updated methods a try, saying that in doing so, he hopes that even larger farms will see the benefits.
Hintz, meanwhile, says the number of similar groups across the state has more than doubled in the past three years. As of the writing of this article, there are 41 total watershed councils in the state of Wisconsin.
The FTWC, for its part, focuses on educating farmers about soil erosion and nitrogen leaching in the surrounding area by hosting different events throughout the year.
Upcoming events include the Wisconsin Cover Crop Conference and the Wisconsin DATCP Producer-Led workshop, occurring concurrently on Dec. 13; and the annual UW Discovery Farms Conference, which will take place the next day on Dec. 14. All three will be held at the Glacier Canyon Conference Center in the Wisconsin Dells.
Other events on the docket include a special speaker slotted for early February who will speak on soil conservation.
During growing season, FTWC tends to hold another event in which a farmer discusses what has worked and what hasn’t with regards to sustainably improving crop yields.
In addition, they offer a variety of cost-share practices, from cover crop aerial applications, which allow farmers to get a jump on next season’s crops without tilling; to plant tissue sampling, which allows farmers to more accurately assess crop fertilizer needs.
For more information on the FTWC or future events, check out the FTWC’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/FarmersForTomorrow.