SRPF photo

Joe Loehr (left) talks about interseeding soybeans into corn as a cover crop to build soil health during a field day last year at Loehr Dairy in Fond du Lac County. Joe and his brother, Mark, are charter members of Sheboygan River Progressive Farmers, a farmer-led conservation group.

SHEBOYGAN COUNTY — If Sheboygan River Progressive Farmers proves anything, it’s that agricultural conservation should be driven by the people who know and love the land best: local farming communities.

Experts have observed that local, small-scale farmers are often the best equipped to tackle issues ranging from phosphorous runoff to the larger issue of climate change. They understand, intimately, the environmental challenges unique to their patch of earth.

As such, farmer-led conservation groups like the Sheboygan River Progressive Farmers may provide a blueprint for environmentalists going forward.

“Back in 2017, a couple farmers asked me if I was interested in some more progressive farming,” said Travis Luedke, a farmer based in Plymouth and treasurer for SRPF. “We do have a mix of some older folks on the board and some younger who are bit more progressive. I guess I fall in the middle. Everybody’s got different incentives. It’s nice to have that.”

“In farming, there’s always more than one way to do it. That’s where farmer-led conservation really comes into play, because there’s other people that have that have tried these practices and they might have ran into issues along the way,” Luedke added. “They’ve lived it, and they’re able to guide somebody that’s new in these practices. And so maybe they wouldn’t have to go through the same harsh learning curve.”

Formed in 2017, SRPF represents the interests of 44 backers and 39 farms covering roughly 24,000 acres on the Sheboygan River watershed in east-central Wisconsin. The group counts dairy operators, cash croppers, hobby farmers and part-timers among its members — a diverse set of backgrounds that benefits an organization predicated on networking and collaboration.

“It’s all about networking. It’s nice to be able to bounce ideas off some guys,” Luedke said.

“When you get, say, government agencies, it sometimes looks good on paper, but it might not work as good in our area. We all have to deal with certain microclimates. Now, when you get these farmer-led groups we’ve got, we can tap into all this knowledge of the area.”

In the Sheboygan River watershed, farmers are working together to incorporate a litany of sustainability practices to maximize the potential of each acre.

In 2020, SRPF members planted cover crops on 6,762 acres, while utilizing strip tillage and no-tillage on 10,746 acres and low-disturbance manure applications for 7,040 acres. These conservation practices were used on 89,000 total acres, up more than fourfold from 2018.

Last year, these practices potentially prevented an estimated 51,000 pounds of phosphorus runoff and 3,700 tons of sediment erosion, according to research by the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, UW-Madison and The Nature Conservancy.

“We care. As members, we really do care a lot environmentally and how we can make this sustainable,” Luedke said. “It’s about livelihoods and providing a home for our families.”

The SRPF is part of a larger statewide initiative launched in 2016 to provide funding for farmer-led conservation groups, said Dana Christel, a conservation specialist with DATCP’s producer and watershed action grants program. By leaning on state funding, farmers are able to build community-minded organizations to effect change.

Grants are capped at $40,000, Christel noted, while the program recently expanded from $750,000 in 2020 to a full million in 2021. Currently, the program is assessing requests from 36 different farmer-led conservation groups.

Beyond financing, she added, the program is intended to promote, educate, consult and foster connections between farming communities interested in improved conservation practices.

”The thing about this grant program is that it has a little bit more stability in the different types of conservation practices that farmers can try,” Christel said. “It empowers farmers. It allows them to be a little more innovative with the different things that they’re trying on their farm and this mitigates some of the risk involved with trying something new.”

”It’s more about collaboration and bringing farmers together to work toward improving their operations,” she added. “It’s different than the finger-pointing that can sometimes happen with conservation. It’s been really fun to watch (SRPF) grow, expand and diversify. It’s really positive.”

Christel and Luedke encouraged farmers to visit the DATCP website to learn more about the grant program and whether an affiliated conservation group can be found in their area.

In addition, farmer-led conservation groups — including SRPF — typically run their own websites and social media pages as well, which presents a good opportunity for interested parties to reach out, connect and network.

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