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Local Farmers Seeking Ways to Improve Fields and Water Quality


Working with a council provides farmers with ideas and opportunities they haven't interacted with before. Here a farmer of the Dry Run watershed is looking at his soil's water-holding capacity with an NRCS soil scientist in preparation for a field day demonstration.

For all of us, it’s sweet corn season. But for farmers in Farmer-Led Watershed Councils, it’s also grant application season! Based on the success of farmer-led councils early in the last decade, the Department of Agriculture, Trade, & Consumer Protection started providing funding to assist these councils and help others start in 2016. In 2023, 43 such groups were provided funding to assist them in council activities. Applications for 2024 funding are due on September 15th. Farmer-Led groups can apply for up to $40,000 towards any activities they feel would be useful in helping farms protect our local waters.


For a council to exist, at least five farmers need to show commitment to leadership within their watershed. Last year, the many farmer-led groups across the state applied for well-over the $1 million made available by the state legislature. Because of this shortfall, the groups have to be judicious in their expectations and flexible in their planning. They also have to think about practical services that would be useful to local farmers and make an impact on the watershed. These decisions are being made in the coming weeks before the September 15th grant deadline.



Watershed councils host many field events in order to provide in-depth, hands-on interaction with field practices like no-till and cover crops. Here are farmers in Chippewa county looking at soil and response to long-term no-till and cover crops.

Farmers join these councils for a variety of reasons. Many want to continue learning and overcome practical hurdles when adopting new practices that improve their farms. Having an organized council provides them space with other farmers to chat through challenges, successes, and new ideas. Some leaders talk about this being similar to “4H for grownups.” Other farmers are interested in the flexible conservation funding the groups provide, which can help them remove some of the risk of adopting new practices, such as cover crops, while they learn how to make them work at a small scale before scaling across their whole farm. Other farmers join based on a commitment to conservation, wanting be up-to-date on the latest practices that protect their fields from erosion and nutrient loss.


Overall, it’s a program focused on farm viability. This program is called Farmer-Led or Producer-Led for a reason: we know that farmers will design programs that work at field-scale while also moving the needle on pollution reduction. And pollution reduction has occurred. In 2022 alone, the 4 councils this author works with daily they saved over 2,000 tons of sediment from leaving fields alongside thousands of pounds of nitrogen and phosphorous, two nutrients essential to crop health which become pollutants when entering surface waters in large amounts. These numbers add to the statewide totals of 218,000 tons of sediment saved across the state from activities associated with Producer-Led councils.



If you know a farmer working on one of the farmer-led councils in our region, please take a moment to thank them for their volunteer time with these groups. If you’re a farmer who wants to see these councils succeed, consider providing your perspective at the next local meeting or field event.


Map of Producer-Led Watershed Councils funded by DATCP in 2023

Four local farmer-led councils in the area share a website at www.farmerledwatershed.org and facebook.com/farmerledwatershed. Statewide information can be found at https://datcp.wi.gov/Pages/Programs_Services/ProducerLedProjects.aspx.


Coordination of this project is supported by the Wisconsin Farmers Union as part of our commitment to enhance rural quality of life. If you would like to talk to our watershed coordinator to be connected to more information on watershed councils, reach out to Tara Daun at 715-492-0329 or email at tdaun@wisconsinfarmersunion.com. Farmer perspective and involvement is always welcome, if you have thoughts on what local councils should be doing or improving, don’t hesitate to reach out.

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