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2023 Red Cedar Watershed Conference Emphasizes Chemistry (in More Ways Than One)

by Kelly Carlson, WFU Rural Correspondent

The 11th annual Red Cedar Watershed Conference, back in-person for the first time since 2020, was an emotional reunion from the start. Held in honor of Dr. Rod Olson, former Co-Chair of conference, and being in the presence of one another to openly talk about change, sustainability, and chemistry, at its core, made the conference that much more special. It was a deep recognition of how change in recent years (from the pandemic, global warming, or financial means) has influenced our farmers, and therefore, our foods and soils. Featuring 3 keynote speakers, 12 breakout session speakers, and 19 booths of local organizations ranging from energy to farming, the conversations addressing opportunities to adapt to these changes— all geared towards one common solution for every problem: chemistry.

Emphasizing not only the chemical properties and life of the soil we use to support our agriculture, but also the social connections farmers must create with each other, their stakeholders, their government, and the land, was the essential point to each speaker presented.

Climate change is increasingly driving a new wave of concern. Farmers, big and small, feel the challenges that come with increased rainfall, increased heat, and increased variability in weather patterns, species impact, and inflated rates for production, while simultaneously seeing their margins shrink. Constantly being sold new ideas and told of their shortfalls, a natural divide is created between farmers and programs made to support them. Of course, the idea of reinventing their farming practice in a way that is sustainable introduces huge waves of anxiety, and frankly, skepticism. “Huge unknown questions are ballooning around the acceptance… that is scary,” Tara Daun, Farmer-Led Watershed Council Coordinator at Wisconsin Farmers Union, said.

However, agriculture is recognized as one of the leading areas where we can not only change the way we farm to produce better food, healthier soil, and happier people, but also directly affect climate change on a global scale.

“Agriculture depends on the water and air and soil, and humans depend on agriculture,” Dr. Jim Boulter, Chemistry professor at University-Wisconsin Eau Claire (UWEC), said at the opening keynote. “In the wake of change, we need to focus on mitigation, adaptation, and building resilience.” Not only are those three incredibly challenging in terms of investment and variation from standardized practice, but they take time. This is a process that begins with understanding the soil on a biological level. “It’s important to learn about what crops can do… and how… natural practices can impact yield, quality, and production cost,” Tom Manley, director of Marbleseed, a non-profit rooted in natural and organic farming, said.

“The soil is a living, breathing organism that is changing all the time,” Rick Clark, owner and operator of Clark Land & Cattle and Farm Green Consulting, said at the afternoon keynote. “We have to have balance with mother nature: a symbiotic relationship.” In his talk, nearly a decade of regenerative organic stewardship with no tillage, as Clark calls it, opened not only room for quality, lower maintenance, and lower production cost, but also community in growing great food, year after year, showing proof in the margins earned. “You can’t expect to do these things tomorrow. It takes dedication, it takes commitment,” Clark said. You’re not going to see huge gains in one year after decades of traditional farming. It takes more of a committed steward to see real, positive change. “It’s not all about yield], it’s about who can be a good steward to the ground, who can mitigate climate change, and who can get a good return on investment.”

Further, the next important step is rooted in a collaborative and open community, ready to step outside of their comfort zone. It starts with the individual making decisions intentionally to change, and then, talk about it. “We have made huge strides in terms of efficiency,” Daun said. “Yet, there is plenty of room for improvement.” Conversations with landowners need to happen in order to learn from each other, to mitigate mistakes, and to celebrate progress without fear of competition and judgment. “The way we farm today is so different,” Clark stated. “You need everyone’s support.”

The conference also recognized an important reminder: when it comes to farms and good, clean food, no-one is against each other. “Everyone wants healthy food and for farmers to make a living. Everyone wants clean water,” Daun stated. Instead of introducing new technology and compromising efforts, Daun emphasized a need to look for collaborative efforts. “In collaboration, nobody has to give anything up,” she said.

The final keynote speaker, moved by his own enjoyment of our natural landscape, has worked with thousands of people throughout his career to rid the Mississippi River of trash. His work teaches us that, when dealing with overwhelming forces (such as cleaning the largest river in the United States, climate change, and even social agendas), you cannot lead to progress on your own. “The Earth is destroyed piece by piece,” Chad Pregracke, founder and president of Living Lands & Waters, said. “And that’s the way it needs to be fixed, too.”

There is a direct correlation between soil health, human health, and the health of the planet. The changes happening to us all only create more room for positive adaptation. “If you are not uncomfortable with what you’re doing, then you are not trying hard enough to change,” Clark laughed. “Change is good for all of us.”

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