CRAWFORD AND VERNON COUNTIES - About 16 people participated in the Thursday, January 28 meeting of the Tainter Creek Watershed Council. Participants had the option to attend online or in-person, and about six people were present at the Franklin Town Hall and 10 people attended online.
At their first meeting in 2021, the group learned about the new Producer Led Watershed Council grant provided by DATCP, began planning for 2021 activities, and heard various reports.
Franklin Town Chairman and watershed council member Berent Froiland reported to the group that “it had been a good year for cover crops in the watershed.” Froiland told the group that funds available from the council had allowed for 800 acres on 23 farms to be planted in cover crops at $25 per acre – a total expenditure of $20,000.
“There was a small amount left from the 2020 cover crop funds, so either producers will let us know if they planted acres they haven’t yet claimed or we’ll just carry it over into 2021,” Froiland explained. “For 2021, we have less funds available – about $10,000.”
Froiland said that the group would need to discuss how they wanted to spend those funds, and if there were things they wanted to prioritize such as new acres or different species or a different planting method.
“What feedback have we received from producers that have used our funds to plant cover crops?” Brian McCulloh asked.
Froiland replied that he had heard that people who planted cover crops “like the practice” and “are sold on it.” He said he’s heard that farmers who are planting cover crops have seen soil health benefits, and he hasn’t heard much, if any, negative feedback.
McCulloh pointed out that the purpose of planting cover crops is to improve water quality in Tainter Creek, reduce runoff, improve soil health, and ultimately to improve farm profitability.
“When can we expect to really start to see the benefits of planting cover crops?” McCulloh asked.
“The general rule of thumb is that it takes three-to-five years to really start to see the results of planting cover crops,” Vernon County Conservationist Ben Wojahn said. “And the thing to remember is that DATCP has changed their guidelines about using the grant funds to plant covers on the same ground, and it is important to remember that there are other funding sources available for planting cover crops such as USDA-NRCS EQIP funding.”
Tainter Creek Watershed farmer and watershed council coordinator Dani Heisler-Woodill suggested that the group develop a survey to ask producers what kinds of results they’ve seen on their acres from cover crops, and what kinds of things they are interested in doing in 2021.
“We don’t have to make a decision about this right away,” Heisler-Woodill said. “As long as we have things nailed down by about July, we should be alright.”
Froiland reported to the group that they had been funded again by DATCP for the fourth year in a row. Grant amounts in previous years had been $40,000, but this year the grant had come in at $30,000.
“There were a lot more groups that applied for the grants this year,” Valley Stewardship Network’s Monique Hasseman said. “For that reason, it is really significant that this watershed council was chosen to be funded for the fourth year in a row.”
Froiland said that the grant funds are earmarked for cover crops, well water testing, farm walkovers, watershed signs and education events.
“The subgroup on well water testing has met, and recommends that the watershed council offer well water testing at the same time as the Driftless Area Water Study this spring,” Karen Bolstad reported. “Doing that will create certain efficiencies in working with the lab, transporting the samples, and more.”
Bolstad reminded the group that in previous testing conducted by the watershed council, they had offered both the Homeowners and the Metals tests. She said that in order to piggyback most effectively on the DAWS testing, the sub group is recommending offering only the Homeowners test this time.
“At some point, we should arrange for this group to have a presentation on the DAWS testing results,” Wojahn said. “The Tainter Creek Watershed Council testing results were included on some of the maps used to present the DAWS results.”
Monique Hasseman, who works part-time with Valley Stewardship Network, helping to coordinate the Tainter Creek Watershed Grazing Project, provided the group with an update.
“We are in the process of revamping the list of approved practices eligible to receive funding under the program,” Hasseman explained. “Some additional practices that are under consideration to be funded include re-grading/excavation to reduce runoff or repair gullies, solar fencing or wells, leveling for water tank placement, and agronomy equipment rental or services.”
Hasseman said that they are open to additional suggestions, and interested producers should feel free to reach out to her at 608-637-3615, or via e-mail at email@example.com
Hasseman reported that currently the program has eight producers ‘in the pipeline,’ all of whom have completed a whole farm assessment with Jim Muench, and a grazing plan with Dennis Rooney.
“Don’t be bashful about pursuing your plans through this program,” Heisler-Woodill said. “We want to know what your ideas are, and remember there is no per-farm cap with this program. The main thing is you need to keep moving forward towards your goal.”
Hasseman reminded the group that rolling applications for grazing project funds are accepted on a first-come, first-completed basis, and are evaluated on reducing phosphorous and sediment loss at a reasonable cost. She emphasized that right now is a great time for producers to reach out if they want to implement their plans in the 2021 growing season.
Heisler-Woodill reported to the group that the 2021 grant includes funding for eight watershed signs to be placed at various entrances to the watershed. There was a lot of discussion about rules governing signs in road right-of-ways, and a suggestion that county and town officials be contacted about any proposed signs to ensure compliance with the laws.
Heisler-Woodill reported that grant funds would also cover the cost of placing ‘cover crops in progress’ signs next to fields where cover crops are being grown using watershed council funding.
“This is a part of the grant for marketing and promotion” Heisler-Woodill explained. “The purpose is to communicate to the public that farmers in the watershed are working to improve quality of the soil and water in the watershed.”
Of course, with uncertainty swirling about what lies ahead with the COVID-19 pandemic, the farmers struggled with setting dates for events. Brian McCulloh advocated for “just moving ahead, and then being prepared to revise any plans as needed.”
Heisler-Woodill stated that given COVID-19, it did not seem likely that putting on a large event where hundreds of participants gather together would be possible. One alternative that she proposed was for a two-day event with one or more soil health experts. The first day would be one-on-one meetings with farmers on their farms, and the second day could be a field day with the same panel of experts.
“Our fencing workshop with Randy Cutler was incredibly practical, well-received, and it actually got some work done on the farm,” Wojahn reminded the group. “It was a low-cost and COVID-safe event.”
Karen Bolstad reminded the group that they had also received a $750 grant from the Crawford County Community Fund to be used for the streambank education and fishing event, usually held in May.
“Chuck and I have been in conversation with the Trout Unlimited folks about when to hold that event this year,” Bolstad reported. “The tentative plan at this time is to hold the event in September, and there is a belief that it could be arranged to allow people to engage in free fishing for that event.”
Brian McCulloh urged the group to get some dates on the calendar. Heisler-Woodill suggested that the group focus on scheduling any events in June, July or August, with the goal of squeezing in three events. Brad Robson suggested a fall tour of fields seeded with cover crops.
“Perhaps a question about what kinds of education producers are interested in could be included in any survey about cover crops that is sent out,” Jim Muench suggested. “In addition, perhaps each member could reach out to five or six people to ask them if there are education topics that would be of interest to farmers in the watershed.”
The group decided to tentatively reserve April 22-23, July 15-16, and August 22-23 for education events.
There was discussion about planning to hold meetings in February and March, and discussion about what topics or speakers could be invited to provide education to the group. Overwhelmingly, the group agreed that meetings in February and March were a good idea, continuing to offer both an in-person and virtual option for participation.Heisler-Woodill suggested inviting Adam Kramer of Black Sand Granary to address the group about his cover crop program and “value proposition.” There was also a suggestion about attempting to interface with another watershed council. It was suggested that perhaps Jack Herrick of the Rush Creek Watershed in Ontario would be a good group to begin with. Another suggestion was to learn more about the drone cover crop seeder built by a farmer in Clayton County, Iowa.