ROLLING GROUND - The Wisconsin Women in Conservation (WiWiC) group continued their summer education series with a tour of Rolling Ground organic farmer, Harriet Behar’s farm.
The group gathered on Friday, July 15, to learn about Behar’s operation, and approach to organic weed control, erosion control, protecting surface water quality, maximizing biodiversity and building soil health.“I first purchased my farm in 1981 with my first husband, who is a blacksmith,” Behar told the 20 women gathered. “It was a long, difficult search to find the perfect farm, and it took me four years to find my little slice of paradise.”
Behar calls her farm ‘Sweet Springs Farm,’ but told event participants she had considered renaming it ‘Cover Crop Farm,’ because of her enthusiasm for use of cover crops in her farm operation.
Behar, a farmer and weaver, was one of the first employees at Organic Valley, and continued to sell organic vegetables to the cooperative for many years. Behar also worked as an organic certifier and as an organic educator with the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES), and served as chairperson of the USDA National Organic Standards Board at one point.
“These days, I’ve scaled back a bit, and focus on certified organic medicinal and culinary herbs, honey from my honeybees, bedding plants grown in my solar-powered greenhouse in the spring, chickens for eggs, and a big, organic vegetable garden,” Behar told the women. “These days, I grow vegetables for myself, and sell some to my friends.”
Behar says she loves cover crops for their weed suppression and soil building benefits, and also makes sure to grow plenty of flowering plants for her bees and plants to make the natural dyes for the yarn she uses in her weaving.
The women did a round-robin introduction, discussing their background, their land, and their conservation goals and dreams for that land. Many of the women were repeat attendees, with a handful of new women. Participants travelled to the farm from Platteville, Clyde Township in Iowa County, Pepin, Rolling Ground, rural Gays Mills, Lynxville, Juneau County, Willow Township in Richland County, Mt. Horeb, Boaz, the Tainter Creek Watershed, Readstown, Black Earth, Viroqua, Fennimore, Winnebago County, and Sauk City.
WiWiC is a state-wide collaborative effort led by the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute in partnership with Renewing the Countryside, the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES), and Wisconsin Farmers Union. A three-year multi-faceted project funded by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), WiWiC brings together Wisconsin women landowners to connect and learn about conservation practices, resources, and funding opportunities.
Women landowners are a growing demographic. The 2017 Census recorded 38,509 female producers in Wisconsin, showing that women make up 35 percent of all producers in the state. But women have been and still are underserved by NRCS and other federal and state conservation funding and support agencies.
Karyl Fritsche, USDA-NRCS District Conservationist for Crawford County and now Richland County, attended the gathering. She said she has worked for NRCS for over 20 years, and owns a small piece of property in Bridgeport Township in Crawford County.
Touring the fields
The first stop on the tour was a field close to the house, in front of Behar’s solar-powered greenhouse. The field was being used to grow Calendula and tomatoes. She said her solar greenhouse uses an air circulation system to capture heat during the day and store it in the ground. This method keeps the greenhouse warm at night unless it goes below zero.
“I’ve had a problem with thistle in this field, which my seed supplier says is likely introduced with my seeds,” Behar explained. “For this reason, I’ve planted Sorghum Sudan grass because it grows very thickly and functions as a smother crop.”
Behar says that this method smothers the thistle plants, so that by the end of the season they are too weakened to overwinter. She said that it had taken her about two growing seasons using this approach to get the thistles under control in the field. Behar said the method also works for parsnip and burdock. She also showed an innovative device, invented by her husband, which uses a come-along, mounted on a two-by-four, which she said they use to yank burdock out by its roots.Behar shared a comprehensive listing of all cover crops used on the farm, and their attributes, with the field day attendees.
In the same field, she was growing a cover crop mix designed to increase soil fertility, and smother another problem weeds. Among the seeds in the mix is a legume called Chickling Vetch, an annual vetch, which Behar said is great for building nitrogen in the soil. Because it is an annual, it doesn’t have the invasive properties of other vetches.
“You can plant Chickling Vetch any time you plant oats,” Behar said. “It is fast growing, and if used for inter-seeding between rows, can suppress some weeds. A midsummer planting will winter kill, and leave a thick mulch that incorporates easily in the spring. The bees love its beautiful, blue flowers.”
“This is a good mix for optimizing the carbon-nitrogen ratio in your soil, with the goal of balance for your covers or your crops,” Fritsche said. “If you plant rye in your mix, be careful not to let it go to seed.”
In another field, Behar was growing soybeans as a cover crop. She said she loves soybeans because the seed is cheap, they’re great for smothering weeds, and incorporate very well when tilled in.
“I’ve also used beans in my innovative approach to planting native prairie without use of chemical herbicides such as Glyphosate,” Behar said.
Behar told the group that she had amazed the folks from USDA-NRCS, who said that planting and establishing a prairie couldn’t be done without use of herbicides, because NRCS technical standards require a clean seed bed prior to planting.
“We took a two-season approach to preparing the bed for planting prairie, starting with planting winter rye, followed by oats and field peas in the spring,” Behar said. “Then we planted soybeans in June, mowed them in July, and planted the prairie in September by broadcasting the seed, and then running over the bed with a cultipacker.”
Next the group travelled out of the fields, and into a wooded area dotted with watercress-filled springs. The group travelled on a road which would eventually take people up to the top fields on the farm, planted in prairie.
While still at the bottom, the group viewed a large, heavily-wooded, dry run, that Fritsche said was very efficient at conveying water off the top fields and down the steep slopes. She said that because of the steep grades, even permanent prairie plantings on top, and careful woodland management, couldn’t prevent the catastrophic runoff in large rain events.
“We constructed this cemented area both to maintain the crossing for our road, but also to trap sediment from the dry run and keep it out of the trout stream, the West Fork Knapp’s Creek,” Behar explained. “At first, working with NRCS, we had installed a rock chute, but it kept eroding and blocking our access to our upper fields, so we replaced it with this concrete structure.”
Behar also said that she and her husband Arin Brin have put their woods into a 50-year Managed Forest Plan.“We don’t allow clear cutting to maintain dead trees for habitat,” Behar said. “Our focus is to protect the health of the woods. We manage invasive species like garlic mustard using a backpack flamer when the garlic mustard plants are two-to-three inches tall.”
Ponds and prairie
Next, the group moved on to areas along the road where they have worked with NRCS to install frog ponds for habitat, and plant prairie.
“I think that when the ponds were constructed, instead of being 12-18 inches deep, they should have been deeper,” Behar said. “We are currently grappling with an invasion of cattails into the ponds, and also with a large beaver dam on the small spring-fed creek that flows through our property.”
Behar said that they had had beavers before, and have adopted the strategy of getting them to move elsewhere by dismantling their lodges and dams. She said it requires persistent effort, but that eventually they will move to a different location.
Behar said that they also have plans to contend with the large amount of willow growing in their riparian corridor, which she says encourages beavers.
“Managing wet sites is sometimes easier in the winter when the ground is frozen,” Fritsche contributed. “And, NRCS approves of cutting willow in riparian corridors.”As far as the prairie plantings, Behar said that a fall planting and burning will favor the forbes in the mix. These plants are a priority for her because they provide food for her bees. She said that burning in the fall has also helped them to control Autumn Olive when it is invading the prairie.