MONROE COUNTY - When Jack Herricks took over his family’s rural Cashton dairy farm after his father’s death in 1971, it was a 120-acre operation with 34 cows.
Today, the family-run operation encompasses 1,000 acres that supports a 600 head dairy herd. During that time, Herricks, his wife Pat and their family have implemented conservation practices on the land whose steep hillsides and narrow valleys would have once left it vulnerable to erosion. The farm sits at the headwaters of Brush Creek, a tributary of the main stem of the Kickapoo River.
Those practices include no-till planting, erosion control structures, grass waterways, improved field roads and tree stand and wildlife improvement projects. These conservation practices have garnered him some well-earned recognition over the years.
In 1983 he and Pat were named the Monroe County farm Conservationists of the Year. In 2014, the Sand County Foundation presented him with The Aldo Leopold Award and, most recently, he was named the 2021 Master Agriculturist by Wisconsin Agriculturalist.
It’s that commitment to land stewardship that brought U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin to the Herricks’ farm on Wednesday, where she toured the property and got a firsthand look at Herricks’ management of the land.
“We’re not really owners of the land,” Herricks explained. “We’re just the people here now taking care of it, and hopefully doing it in a way that allows us to hand it off to the next generation of caretakers.”
Contour strips key
Monroe County Conservationist Bob Micheel spoke enthusiastically of the work Herricks had done on his farm over the years.
“The contour strips that you see on this farm are the key to holding water on the landscape, and preventing runoff,” Micheel said. “The landscape is covered in crops and perennial forage strips right down to the woods, and the cattle are fenced out of the woods.”
Herricks went on to explain that over the years of his stewardship of the land, he had been able to increase his soil organic matter from two, to between four and six percent.
“Each percentage increase in soil organic matter can hold another inch-equivalent of rainfall,” Herricks explained. “And not only that, but soil that is healthy stores more carbon, and begins to produce its own nutrients, reducing our need for crop inputs.”
Micheel also heads up the Monroe County Climate Change Task Force, which Herricks sits on. He pointed out the topography of Herricks’ farm, which has endured back-to-back 100-year and 500-year rain events, shows how farmers can play a role in mitigating the effects of climate change.
“Jack walked every inch of the farm looking for opportunities and was always willing to try something new for the betterment of his operation and the landscape,” Micheel observed. “Jack’s efforts have slowed the rain runoff in those big rain events while preventing erosion.”
One of Herricks’ priorities was to make sure the soil stayed on the landscape and was fertile. He compared the soil to bridges and other manmade structures that have a certain lifespan.
“You take this soil, this land that’s been in our family going on 110 years and you look at the crop that’s growing on it – it’s nowhere near the end of its life,” he said. “It’s producing and it has nurtured and fed our family all these years. With good caretakers coming on, it’s going to be capable of continuing to nurture for many, many more years.”
Herricks, who at times was seen sitting close to his grandson Devin, emphasized that conservation is a ‘generational endeavor.’ He said that the process of making improvements on the landscape that can protect land and water, and increase farm profitability, is a long process. He said that one of his major goals was to create a profitable farm business that could be handed off to future generations of his family.
Herricks was particularly proud of his grandson Devin who had recently won the Farm Bureau essay contest in Monroe County. His essay, ‘Soybeans and How they Fuel Our Earth,’ had gone on to win the District Four competition and advance to the state competition, where he was among the top nine essayists in the state.
That essay reads as follows:
“Soybeans help us fuel our earth in many ways and they are found in things we use everyday. Soybeans are renewable energy and environmentally friendly.
“Soybean oil can be made into soy biodiesel. The soy biodiesel can be used in diesel engines like tractors, skid steers, and choppers. According to the North Carolina Soybean Producers Association, soy biodiesel is better for our environment than petroleum-based diesel fuel.
“Soybeans are also used for food not only for humans, but animals too. Soybean oil can be found in many things we eat often, like breads, cookies, cake, tuna and crackers. After the oil is taken from the soybeans, the soybeans are made into soybean meal for animals to eat, like cows, pigs, chickens and even our pets.
“Look around your home right now. You may be looking at something made from soybeans. Many kinds of carpet in homes and businesses are made from soy products. Some furniture, countertops, and flooring are also made with materials that have soybeans in them. Soy-based foam is also used in vehicle seats. Have a candle burning in your house right now? It may just be made out of soybeans!
“Soybean products can also be found in schools. The Dixon Ticonderoga Company makes crayons from the soy oil in soybeans. The soy oil is separated from the raw soybeans and is used instead of petroleum like other crayons. The crayons made with soy oil are non-toxic, which means they are safer for children to use.
“As you see, soybeans are a good source of renewable energy for our earth. They are environmentally friendly and can be used in many ways. Wisconsin farmers are really responsible for this useful plant into our homes and businesses.”
Following these remarks, Micheel pointed out that all of Herrick’s efforts could be wiped out if the farm changed hands and the land was less ethically managed.
One incentive that is part of upcoming federal infrastructure bills is carbon credits, which reward farmers for implementing conservation practices. These practices fight the impacts of climate change by removing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it in the soil.
Herricks said he is okay with that, but he feels farmers who have been doing the right thing all along also should be able tap into that revenue stream.
Senator Baldwin told the group that a big concern with the infrastructure funding and budget reconciliation bills currently moving through Congress is “to use the funding to protect the existing conservation practices on the landscape, and reward producers for the good things they are already doing.”
“The infrastructure funding is also intended to incentivize producers to install new practices and to keep those practices in place for the long term,” Baldwin explained. “The carbon credits being discussed will not be retroactive, but should definitely pay for existing practices.”
Still, Herricks said the conservation practices he has implemented also helped the business’ bottom line. He said it showed a large dairy farm can have a strong conservation ethic and be profitable at the same time.
Micheel emphasized that farming with a conservation ethic has become increasingly important in recent years in the Driftless Region.
“This area, right where we’re standing, has essentially become the new equator,” Micheel said. “Our area has led the nation in the increasing frequency and intensity of heavy rainfall events that are overwhelming the landscape’s ability to infiltrate the water and slow it down before it becomes runoff that causes flooding.”
Micheel said that while the area had always been blessed with abundant water, in recent years it is the increasing intensity of the rainfall events that is overwhelming the system.
“When you get fourteen inches of rain in less than six hours over one location, then it is very difficult to manage that water on the landscape,” Micheel said. “We can’t build our way out of it, and so we need to pursue ways to mitigate the impacts of these events, and the best way to do that is to keep the landscape covered.”
Herricks also brought up the financial burden of a proposal to lower the tax exemption from $10.5 million to $3.5 million when transferring a farm to the next generation.
“It creates a tax burden that makes it too difficult to keep the business intact,” said Herricks, whose own children want to keep farming. “It could force them out of business.”
Another issue he addressed with Baldwin was immigrant labor, which makes up a good deal of the dairy industry’s workforce. He said he would like to be able to have employers sponsor these laborers, many who have children attending local schools.
Joe Bragger, who runs a 400-head dairy operation near Independence, who also attended the event, lobbied Baldwin to consider backing a national market-driven dairy policy to regulate the industry’s surplus and give farmers a better price on their milkHe said he felt Baldwin was receptive to the plight of the dairy farmers, who are experiencing both record bankruptcies and high suicide rates in this area.