PLATTEVILLE — Members of the Lafayette Ag Stewardship Alliance and faculty from UW-Platteville’s School of Agriculture welcomed about 50 people to the college’s Pioneer Farm on Aug. 15 for a field day with a soil and water focus.
This was the third field day hosted by farmer-led LASA and highlighted how conservation practices can impact water quality, soil quality and the bottom line on farms in Lafayette County and beyond. The field day also showcased research being completed at Pioneer Farm and the partnership LASA farmers have with representatives at UW-Platteville.
According to LASA President and Chairman Jim Winn, about three years ago, a bus tour around Lafayette County was organized as the farmer-led watershed group was just getting off the ground in the county. Pioneer Farm was one stop on the tour, with Winn knowing immediately that the organization needed to get involved and collaborate with the college and its farm.
Dennis Busch, a senior scientist at Pioneer Farm, said collaborating with LASA has allowed him and his students to explore questions and answers about water quality and soil health, sharing those results with area farmers. Most recently, four research trials were completed at two LASA farmer-member farms, with Busch and his students studying water infiltration with a rain simulator.
“We have a great relationship with LASA and are looking forward to continuing that,” Busch said.
Attendees to the field day rotated around to four different stations, spending about 25 minutes at each station learning about water infiltration and soil health, along with on-farm trials and groundwater quality monitoring being done at Pioneer Farm. LASA members also shared why they feel it’s important to have an organization such as theirs promoting sustainable stewardship of the land and a commitment to improving water quality and the environment.
“There is power in these farmer-led initiative groups,” Winn said. “And there is value.”
He explained how three and a half years ago, members of the Dairy Business Association suggested to Winn how it may be a good idea to start a farmer-led group in Lafayette County. With the success of groups like Peninsula Pride Farms in Kewaunee and Door counties and Yahara Pride Farms in Dane County/Madison area, Winn and others saw an opportunity to bring farmers and friends of agriculture together to find solutions to safeguard water and soil within the county, especially in an era where people are questioning whether their food and water is safe.
LASA vice president Steve Carpenter said the education component has been the biggest draw for him.
“Through LASA, we can educate ourselves and each other. It’s what I really get out of this group,” he said.
Carpenter also sees value in the cost-share program that LASA began last year. LASA members are eligible for three cost-share programs that allow them to experiment with cover crops, nutrient stewardship and no-till/reduced tillage. These practices have been shown to provide many benefits, including reducing soil erosion by wind and water; limiting nutrient losses via leaching, runoff and other loss pathways; and improving soil health.
A partnership with The Nature Conservancy has also allowed for the creation of a benchmark report last year, which documented 14 practices being used by LASA farmers and the progress being made through the use of those practices. Last year’s report was the first to be compiled for LASA — revealing that LASA members had an estimated reduction of 42,648 pounds of phosphorus and 13,285 pounds of nitrogen through the use of those conservation practices.
The report is something Winn hopes can be shared with neighbors and the public as an educational tool and a way to show how farmers in Lafayette County are striving to do good by the environment and land.
LASA started about three years ago with about 12 farmers; now the organization has grown to encompass 24 members, but Winn and Carpenter are always on the lookout for more farmers from Lafayette County to join. They encouraged farmers not involved with LASA to reach out to them to learn more.
“The more people we have involved, the more we can learn from each other,” Carpenter said.
To learn more about LASA, visit http://lafayetteagstewardship.org.
Years of public involvement and regulatory review came to a head Aug. 20 as the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin gave preliminary approval to the Cardinal-Hickory Creek Transmission Line, a joint venture of American Transmission Co., ITC Midwest and Dairyland Power Cooperative.
At an open meeting Aug. 20, PSC members unanimously voted to authorize construction of the high-voltage transmission line. The PSC is slated to issue a final written order in September, which could be subject to appeal. Additional regulatory approvals will also be required from the Iowa Utilities Board, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The 345-kilovolt line will stretch from Dubuque, Iowa to Middleton, Wisconsin, passing through the communities of Cassville, Lancaster, Montfort, Dodgeville and Mount Horeb. With a roughly $492 million price tag, the three pursuing entities claim the line will provide economic savings, support renewable energy policy and improve electric system reliability.
“We are pleased that the PSC has recognized the need for and benefits of this project,” said Aaron Curtis, ITC Midwest project manager. “This project will help ensure electric reliability and provide access to lower-cost power and renewable energy for all electric users in the region.”
However, hundreds of public comments were recorded in relation to the project, the majority of them in opposition. The transmission line project has been controversial, with organizations such as the Citizens Utility Board, Driftless Area Land Conservancy and Wisconsin Wildlife Federation all in opposition of the project. Dane and Iowa county boards, along with local governments along the proposed 100-mile route, have also voiced opposition to the project.
The grassroots organization Driftless Defenders called the PSC’s decision “heartbreaking and devastating.” The non-profit has been fighting the project since 2016; the organization formed after several neighbors in Iowa County received a mailing from American Transmission Company which raised questions about eminent domain and the rights of landowners along the proposed routes.
The evening after the PSC’s approval, state Sen. Jon Erpenbach, and Representatives Dave Considine, Dianne Hesselbein and Sondy Pope, Democrat legistalators in the region, issued a statement outlining their disappointment in the decision.
“Unfortunately, many of our concerns and questions regarding this transmission line remain unanswered,” the statement said. “With the overwhelming opposition that we received, you will be hard-pressed to find anyone in our districts who supported the Cardinal-Hickory Creek Transmission Line, and we are all disappointed and surprised by its approval.”
State Sen. Howard Marklein and Representatives Travis Tranel and Todd Novak, area Republican legislators, sent a letter to the PSC in April that shared the concerns of their constituents and asked the Commission to take time to review the input and contributions of the hundreds of citizens that attended public hearings earlier this year.
“I appreciate the difficult deliberative work of the PSC Commissioners and I trust that they took my concerns — and those of my constituents — into consideration while studying the project proposal,” Marklein said in a statement after the PSC’s decision last week. “It appears that they determined that the project will have value, especially in light of Governor Tony Evers’ recent Executive Order to make Wisconsin 100% carbon free by 2050.”
Cardinal-Hickory Creek is the 17th transmission line approved by the PSC in the past decade and the fourth new line to wind through western Wisconsin since 2009. Even with opposition growing for these types of transmission line projects, as demonstrated with Cardinal-Hickory Creek and the recent Badger Coulee line, another line in Wisconsin that was also unsuccessfully challenged, the PSC has never rejected a utility application to build a transmission line.
American Transmission Co., ITC Midwest and Dairyland Power anticipate final approvals to wrap up in late 2019/early 2020. The companies aim to begin construction on the line in 2021, with the project planned to be in service by 2023.
CHIPPEWA FALLS — As Haleigh Ortmeier-Clarke looked out at a field of industrial hemp in Chippewa Falls on Aug. 20, she was impressed with how evenly the crop has grown.
Fifteen varieties of industrial hemp were grown this year on a test site of county-owned farmland near Lake Wissota, a few blocks east of HSHS St. Joseph’s Hospital. The crop was planted June 11 on a two-acre parcel, and it will be harvested in the next 10 to 15 days, she said.
“We’re looking at what is the best option for growers,” Ortmeier-Clarke said. “This has been a learning year. We’re looking at everything we can to make this crop more valuable to farmers.”
Ortmeier-Clarke is a graduate research assistant at UW-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and the Division of Extension. Industrial hemp is now legal in Wisconsin, and about 40 people attended a seminar at the field site Aug. 20 to listen to Ortmeier-Clarke and other researchers discuss their findings on how the crop is growing in Wisconsin. She explained that there are three different possible products from hemp: the fiber/stalks, the seeds in the flower and oils. Farmers would choose industrial hemp varieties based on which product they want to harvest.
The fiber-rich industrial hemp varieties are growing tall, with some plants topping six feet, looking more like a corn stalk than like a marijuana plant.
“This is good for fiber product, with the thick stalk,” Ortmeier-Clarke said as she examined those varieties. “If you want fiber, you want that tall plant.”
In comparison, the hemp plants that produce more oils are shorter and fatter, looking more like a poinsettia or a marijuana plant.
The state acquired its industrial hemp seeds from a producer in Kentucky. However, it has been more than 70 years since the crop could be legally grown in Wisconsin, so there isn’t a lot of data on which varieties will thrive in the state’s climate. Ortmeier-Clarke said that is exactly what drew her to joining this study.
“This is a unique opportunity to look at a crop that is new to Wisconsin again,” she said.
Ortmeier-Clarke said it is too early to tell if industrial hemp will be a hearty crop.
“It was a really rainy year; it’s been an odd year for any crop,” she said.
Bryan Jensen, another UW-Madison researcher, told the crowd about some insect problems they have seen with industrial hemp, particularly a bore that digs into the hemp stalk. However, there wasn’t significant damage.
“You can withstand some insect pressure in these fields,” Jensen said.
It is too early to tell what types of insecticides will be available in the near future to fight those bores and other insects, he added.
Jensen was pleased with the conditions of the hemp field in Chippewa Falls.
“It’s stronger than I expected,” Jensen said. “It’s looking good. They’ve done a really good job with weed management.”
Jensen cautioned that there still isn’t a strong market for industrial hemp, but more Wisconsin farmers are considering growing it.
“There was a big jump in hemp from last year to this year,” Jensen said. “It’s a crop that seems to be hanging in there.”
Carl Duley, Buffalo County UW-Extension agriculture agent, also has an industrial hemp test field in his county. The Chippewa Falls site is among four trial field sites across the state.
“It looks different than ours,” Duley said of the Chippewa Falls’ crop. “It’s not as tall as we have.”
Duley said he’s intrigued by all the possible products that can be manufactured from industrial hemp.
“I’m interested in the fiber and the seed, more than the oils,” Duley said. “I see a lot of future for the fiber.”
Duley told the crowd that industrial hemp could be susceptible to the same type of mildew problems that affect hops plants, but so far, it hasn’t appeared in any of their test fields.
“Hopefully we won’t see any of it,” Duley said.
Wisconsin was once a leading producer of industrial hemp, primarily for rope production, until it was prohibited in 1938. The Legislature reclassified industrial hemp from a narcotic to a commodity crop in December, making it legal to grow at both the state and federal level.
About 200 Wisconsin farmers tried growing it, said Chippewa County UW-extension agriculture agent Jerry Clark.
The hemp is doing well in the sandier soils at the Chippewa Falls site, he added.
“We’ve scattered these around the state to have varied soil,” Clark said.
The state law requires that any industrial hemp must remain below 0.3 percent of THC potency, and Ortmeier-Clarke is confident that the plants are below that level. If the crop reaches the THC level, it must be destroyed.