DARLINGTON — Don Niles was one year out of veterinary school when he came to Kewaunee County in 1983. The countryside was dotted with cows, their caretakers proud dairymen in their communities. However, dairying in Kewaunee County has changed from something of pride for farmers to something that needs to be explained after a “brown water event” gained national attention, with officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency descending on the Wisconsin county looking for answers in 2015 and 2016.
There were helicopters buzzing above and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials visiting large farms, requesting seven-plus years of manure application records from farmers, Niles recalled. But in the end, no fines were issued by the EPA, just a statement about the fractured geology of the area and a suggested solution: get the farmers to start communicating and working together to improve water quality in the county.
“As we’ve gotten more attention and modified our practices, we’ve had one brown water event in the last five years,” said Niles, who also serves as the president of the Peninsula Pride Farms farmer-led group. “Times are changing.”
Niles was the keynote speaker at the second annual meeting of the Lafayette Ag Stewardship Alliance, a farmer-led, nonprofit organization committed to sustainable stewardship of natural resources in Lafayette County. He spoke to attendees about the importance of local farmer-led groups, and owning responsibility of issues when due.
“You can’t be human as a farmer and not twitch when you hear some of the reports,” he said. “But it becomes our responsibility to take those facts and do something differently on our farms.”
Times are changing in agriculture, with Niles noting four “waves” of dairy farmers to Kewaunee County. The first wave of dairy farmers came in the 1900s and started the region’s pride in dairying. A second wave of dairy farmers came in the 1970s; they were already there when Niles arrived in Kewaunee County in the early ‘80s, were comfortable with machinery and had the mentality of milking as many cows as they could without hiring extra help.
The third wave of dairy farmers came in the 2000s, ushering in the presence of larger farms or “so-called CAFOs,” Niles said. Unlike the third wave of farmers, these farmers didn’t mind hiring extra people to milk all the cows they had on their operations.
Niles believes the fourth wave of dairy farmers are arriving in Kewaunee County right now, and the size of their operations are non-important to the opportunity that can be seized. These farmers in the fourth wave are engaged with the non-farming public on issues and share their ethics and responsibilities with them. They are willing to look at their actions as they are perceived by the non-farming public and change their practices when needed. They are also willing to seek out the perspective of the new comers to agriculture before they make up their own minds on the issues.
With this wave is the opportunity to “earn the right and honor to tell our story” to the 99 percent of citizens not involved with agriculture, Niles said.
He cautioned farmers against talking to the non-farming public about how they need to be educated; instead, show and demonstrate to them how a farmer is doing it right on their operation. And in areas where agriculture has contributed to a problem, take responsibility and show initiative that you want to fix it.
“If we will have a place at the table, we need to acknowledge we contributed to the problem,” Niles said. “We need to take a leap of faith and know as a producer, you have contributed to the issue.
“Clearly, we’re not the whole cause of the water quality issue, but we are a factor, and a significant factor,” he said. “And if our neighbors understand that we know it’s our job, they can trust us again.”
A crucial moment to this revelation came during the first organizational meeting of Peninsula Pride Farms four years ago, when a dairyman stood up and said that Kewaunee and southern Door County farmers needed to own their share of the problem. Now 50 farmers, large and small, agronomists and industry professionals are members of the farmer-led group, which focuses on the farmer’s role in protecting, nurturing and sustaining the soil, water and air through their farming practices.
It is at this local level, and with the many minds involved in farmer-led groups, that environmental and social implications of agriculture can be changed — for the better.
“It can be uncomfortable, but see what you can do differently,” Niles said.