UPPER MIDWEST - With issues like low agricultural commodity prices, problems with agricultural nutrients in our surface and ground waters, and increasing rainfall and flooding, it has become more common to hear agricultural producers talking about conservation land management and growing cover crops.
The Michael Fields Agricultural Institute and the Uplands Watershed Council from the Spring Green area held another great cover crops education event on Friday, July 28. The event took place on the ridge top grain farm of Joe Stapleton, and the Lowry Creek Valley grassfed beef farm of Dick and Kim Cates, and their son and daughter-in-law Eric and Kiley.
The event showcased Joe Stapleton’s evolution from using tillage to converting his acres to no-till with cover crops.
“With the increasing amount of rain we’ve had in the last few years, many of the farmers in our area realized that we had to do something to stop the soil erosion, prevent nutrients from getting into the water, and keep the water in our fields instead of running off and contributing to flooding problems,” Stapleton said. “That’s why I joined the Watershed Council and began the process of converting my acres to no-till, and added in cover crops.”
The Cates, down below on a farm that used to belong to the Stapleton family, have been raising grassfed beef on their acres since 1987. They heard about managed grazing from Dr. Larry Smith, DVM, and have maintained their creek side property in rotationally grazed pastures ever since.
“Managing in this manner allows us to protect the trout stream,” Cates said. “And we understand that the water quality issues important to fishers in our area are directly connected to the issues facing fishers downriver in the Gulf of Mexico. Farmers have a role in protecting our waters, and our family is proud to be doing our part.”
Protecting the water
Protecting the water seemed high on the list of priorities of all stakeholders that were featured at the event. Duke Welter of the Trout Unlimited Driftless Area Restoration Effort talked to participants about what the management techniques being employed by both Joe Stapleton and the Cates family means for the health and quality of the area’s cold-water fisheries.
“There are 6,000 miles of cold-water streams in the 42 counties and four states of the Driftless Region,” Welter said. “The conservation land management practices landowners are implementing allow this excellent resource for our area to be maintained in good shape. Trout fishing in the Driftless has been shown to have a $1.6 billion annual economic impact on our area, which helps to make our economy stronger.”
The water and nutrients that run off the land in Spring Green, as in Crawford County, ultimately flow into the Wisconsin River, which then flows into the Mississippi River and down to the Gulf of Mexico in Louisiana. There, as here, nutrients in the water cause a loss of economic productivity for individuals who derive their livelihoods from the land and water.
They also cause a multitude of problems along the way, from polluted ground and surface waters, to phosphorous problems local municipalities face, to toxic algae blooms in lakes and suffocation of aquatic life, and increased flooding.
Problems in the Gulf
Lance Nucio, a shrimper who lives and works in the estuary at the mouth of the Mississippi River in Louisiana, attended the event in Spring Green. He wore a t-shirt that said, “Don’t farm naked – plant cover crops.”
Nucio told event participants that his family has lived in the estuary, on leased land for over 100 years.
“I attended school on a boat,” Nucio said. “And I’ve worked in the shrimping industry my whole life.”
Nucio explained to local farmers and interested citizens about the problems caused in the Gulf by nutrients that come off the farms and lands in the Upper Mississippi Watershed. He explained how increased amounts of water entering the watershed from a warmer climate, and increased run off in intense rain events, has a direct impact on those living and working on the other end of the watershed.
“Because of the levees built to control flooding in New Orleans in the 1930s, the river no longer replenishes the lands at the estuaries,” Nucio explained. “With rising sea levels, the land is sinking, communities are being relocated, people’s traditional livelihoods are being threatened. Futhermore, the nutrients in the Gulf are creating a hypoxic zone that is killing the aquatic life in an area the size of two states.”
Nucio told participants that when the algae blooms in the Gulf die, settle to the bottom and decompose, they use up all the oxygen and threaten the marine life in the area. This causes saltwater species to flee inland into the freshwater marshes, seeking oxygen. Many of these species simply don’t make it, and die.
The situation is pitting neighbor against neighbor in the area. Scant resources are poorly matched to the scope and cost of the projects needed to improve the situation, and protect lives and livelihoods. The impacts of hurricanes in recent years have only exacerbated the situation.
“It’s scary to see communities being forced to relocate,” Nucio said. “I know that my community could be next.”
Part of the discussion has been focused around the idea of altering or eliminating the levees to once again allow the river to replenish the land in the estuary. Obviously businesses and homeowners in threatened areas oppose this solution. Others think that because of the amount of sediment and nutrients in the freshwater coming from the Mississippi River, this could negatively impact the life in the marshes.
On the cusp of solutions
“I travel a lot up and down the river talking to different groups,” Nucio said. “I’m optimistic that we’re on the cusp of finding a solution. In the last 20-30 years, we’ve seen a big drop in the amount of nutrients entering the water from the Upper Midwest. In my community we’ve been experimenting with letting the river water flow through the marshes, and it is helping them to recover.”
Nucio said that when he was a child, the marshes were “lush, and full of wildlife.” Since they started letting the freshwater flow in again, he says they are starting to see the plant and aquatic life come back.
However, Nucio emphasized that the conservation farming efforts of farmers in the Upper Midwest is one of the key things that will allow restoration efforts in the Gulf to continue to move forward. He said that we need less water and less nutrients running off the land in the Upper Midwest to allow solutions to develop in the Gulf. “Planting cover crops can really help with that.”
His trip up to Wisconsin, complete with delicious Gulf shrimp for the lunch at the event, was dedicated to educating landowners in the north about their mutual interests in improving water quality in the Mississippi River watershed.