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"Uncommon Conversations" Enlighten and Inspire Local Community

by Tara Daun, WFU Watershed Coordinator

Becky Brathal of UW-Madison Extension reviewed watersheds and helped attendees understand which water bodies their land practices impact directly. 

In early February, Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Glenwood City hosted another of their Uncommon Conversations events. These events focus on bringing the community together to talk about big ideas or issues of community importance. For this one, the church partnered with the Hay River Farmer-Led Watershed Council to discuss water quality and agriculture locally. 

As participants entered, they were greeted by a map of the watersheds in St. Croix and adjacent counties. They placed a pin in the map noting where they reside and took a look at what watershed their property sits in. To start off the evening programming, Pastor Jonathan Zielske opened with a brief overview of the biblical message of stewardship for creation, founding the rest of the conversation in respectful discourse and setting an expectation of working towards a common good. 

Becky Brathal of UW-Madison Extension then took a few minutes to explain to the attendees about the map they were greeted with and talked through local rivers and streams. Land in Glenwood City is part of the Tiffany and Sandy Creek watersheds, meaning that rain that doesn’t infiltrate into the ground will end up in those creeks. Those creeks both flow into the larger Hay River, which then flows into the Red Cedar River. 

Stewart Bartz, local farmer and a leader in the Hay River Farmer-Led Watershed Council, spoke about his farming practices. The Bartz family has been farming in Dunn and St. Croix county for 6 generations and counting. Until 2020, the Bartz family had a dairy farm; with the pressure from the dairy market, they have transitioned to holistically managed beef where cattle are rotationally grazed through 32 paddocks on the farm allowing each section of pasture to rest for 30 days before seeing livestock again. 

By incorporating regenerative management, farmer Bartz has seen a .75% increase in organic matter (OM) in his soils in 2 years. OM increases that fast are almost unheard of in row crop settings that don’t incorporate livestock. But crops are also an important part of the farm’s whole picture. Bartz noted “small grains are the ace in the hole for building our soil health.” To exemplify how the improvements to his soil are beneficial to the community at large, he shared a video of water running off of his field from snow melt, it was crystal clear. Next to that video, Bartz showed another video, which looked quite different. It showed brown water, that looked more like hot chocolate, running down the ditch past his farm from a neighbor’s field up the road. All that “chocolate” in the water is actually nutrient rich soil which is a lost resource for the landowner and becomes a problem downstream, filling up ditches, creating more washouts, and adding nutrients to systems where they’re harmful. 

Stewart Bartz of Bolan-Vale Farms & the Hay River Farmer-Led Watershed Council presented to farmers and non-farmers about his holistically managed beef and how his practices protect and improve water quality and wildlife habitat.

The benefits to his farm and the greater watershed have encouraged Bolan-Vale farm to keep trying new things to improve the foundation of their farm, the soil. Bartz’s farm, Bolan-Vale was the first farm in the northern half of the state to try seeding with a drone back in 2021.  “I’m always trying something new every year. Most people drive by and shake their heads.”

Bartz noted that his land management has included clearing poor shrubby groves of prickly ash and re-establishing healthy ground cover that holds the soil better than unmanaged brush. “A lot of people think conservation means not doing anything with the land, but I don’t think that’s true.” He ended his presentation with a note on how the broader community can impact the environment and support healthy agricultural practices like those on his farm.

  1. Buy local – buying holistically-managed, locally-raised beef protects surface water and builds habitat for wildlife. 

  2. Get involved with a farmer-led group to learn more about practices that improve the farm and the greater community. If you own farmland, be intentional with your management and work with any renters to ensure that practices consider the long-term impact to the farm.

  3. Work with public officials to keep communities farming friendly. 

After Bartz’s presentation, the attendees had roundtable discussions about their relationship to the watershed and agriculture locally. Participants included local town residents as well as many rural residents and farmers who discussed their concerns of managing inherited farmland, how to talk to farmers in the community, and how to incorporate basic soil health principles locally. Questions ranged from understanding the nuances of chemical use on farms to smart questions to ask farmers. 

To wrap up, Pastor Zielske asked the audience to provide words that represented their evaluation of the meeting. Participants shouted up “inspiring, encouraging, thankful, grateful, enlightened, and appreciative.”

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