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Watershed conservation leaders gather in the heartland of watershed restoration
FARMER ROD OFTE makes a point about the history of conservation work in the Coon Creek Watershed at a recent meeting of Fishers & Farmers held in the local watershed. Ofte is a fourth-generation farmer from the Coon Valley area, and is widely recognized for the conservation practices he uses on his grass-fed beef farm. Mark Vehlewald, President of FYN Consulting, listens intently.

DRIFTLESS - It’s no surprise that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Fishers & Farmers Partnership for the Upper Mississippi River Basin Steering Committee chose to hold their 2018 summer gathering in the Coon Creek Watershed on July 10-12.

The Coon Creek Watershed has an iconic history as the birthplace of watershed-based conservation farming in the United States. A monument in a park in Coon Valley, along the banks of Coon Creek, commemorates the momentous restoration of the damaged landscape, where deforestation and farming practices had resulted in erosion of the topsoil and degradation of the water:

“In the early 1930’s, conservation projects were established in the Coon Creek Watershed that altered land use practices and led to the formation of the United States Soil Conservation Service. This monument is dedicated to the combination of cooperating landowners, dedicated technicians, and conscientious laborers, whose efforts made the Coon Creek Project an example for farmers worldwide. May the commemoration of these pioneering people serve to perpetuate the cause of soil conservation for all time.”

The sign is placed on two stonework wings that marked the entrance to the Civilian Conservation Corps camp established in the Coon Creek Watershed in 1934. Locally, the second such camp was established in Gays Mills in 1935, followed by 21 more camps across the state of Wisconsin in the years from 1935-1940.

The Fishers & Farmers Steering Committee launched on a voyage to the park where the monument is displayed from the Neprud Property of Coon Creek, a public hunting and fishing area, administered by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR). The canoe trip travelled from this location, just a few miles by road, along Coon Creek.

During this water journey through bursting summertime beauty, it was easy to see both the generations of restoration efforts as well as the ravages left by water rampaging through on less tranquil occasions. Looking up, above the banks, to the branches of trees, debris left from past flooding events was still lodged high in branches some five to six feet above the banks. From the creek bottom to the top of the bank it was easily twelve feet. Downed trees littered the watercourse, and massive submerged boulders created numerous obstacles and white water runs.

“I can’t believe the amount of aquatic plant life in this beautiful, sandy-bottomed stream,” said Collin Belby, Illinois-based Fish Biologist with U.S.Fish and Wildlife Service. “Where I come from, there is so much silt from runoff, we don’t have sandy bottoms, and the aquatic plant life is regularly scoured away by flooding and can’t take root.”

As the group was travelling down Coon Creek in canoes, the bells of the Norwegian Lutheran Church of Coon Valley rang out in the quiet, peaceful setting. The bells put one in mind of a quote from Hugh Hammond Bennett, father of watershed-based soil conservation in the U.S., in July of 1953:

 “The success [of the Coon Creek Watershed] demonstration project rang bells around the world, and they were not the bells that tolled the doom of progress, but rather those that tolled for better things for the land that people live by.”

One of the two co-chairs of the Upper Mississippi Fishers & Farmers Steering Committee is Coon Valley farmer Rod Ofte. His family has lived in the Coon Creek Watershed for four generations. Ofte spoke to the group before the launch of the canoes about his family’s history on the land.

And the Coon Creek Watershed doesn’t only spawn outstanding brook and brown trout. Heidi Keuler, a USFWS employee and coordinator of the F&F, grew up in the valley and graduated from Westby High School.

“When we were kids, we’d get off the school bus and immediately head for the creek,” Keuler remembered. “All the best times of my youth were lived here on the banks of Coon Creek.”

Watershed leaders

The Fishers & Farmers Partnership is a self-directed group of farmers, conservation and tribal organizations, and supporting county, state and federal agencies.

The Partnership’s Mission is: Healthy farms, healthy fish, healthy streams – less polarization, more shared work.

The aim of the group is to keep farm profitability high while keeping soil and nutrients on the land and out of the water. Generally, the goal of the partnership is to protect, restore and enhance the 30,700 miles of streams in the Upper Mississippi River Basin in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa and Missouri.

The Watershed Leaders Network of F&F was really launched by Nancy North of NewGround, a communications professional from Minnesota. Early in the process, North saw a need for a forum that would bring farmers in a watershed together in a forum that fostered positive dialogue and shared visioning.

In 2013, North secured a grant from the McKnight Foundation which allowed her to begin to develop her model of workshops designed to facilitate these important discussions. She identified Tracy Chaplin of Co-Nexio, a Duluth-based company, to partner with her and provide facilitation services.

“When we first began our work with farmers, we told the staff from the various state and federal agencies they could not participate,” Chaplin said. “We wanted to create an environment where farmers could listen to each other, and share their wisdom and goals, and discuss their common challenges.”

Later, the group changed their policy on conservation professional participation, when the McKnight Foundation refunded their work in 2017.

“As a result of our continuing refinement of the workshop we offer, we discovered that allowing the conservation professionals to participate was a very good thing,” North said. “I can’t tell you how many of the folks I’ve heard say after the workshop that they’ve never heard farmers speak about shared conservation issues before in the way they do in the workshop.”

Chaplin and Nancy North of NewGround, provided the farmers and conservation professionals from five states in attendance at the steering committee retreat in Coon Valley with a demonstration of the kind of process they provide.

“The workshops are designed to connect people within a watershed for discussion of their common concerns,” Chaplin said. “The workshops allow participants to take time away from their everyday lives and spend two to three days immersed in the conversation.”

The two provide a respectful and focused forum in which individuals from diverse backgrounds and interests within a watershed can come together. While the conversations are sometimes challenging, the framework they provide allows for deep, meaningful discussion and productive outcomes.

“Our work moves people to transform situations that matter to all of us,
North said. “With clients, we ask: Are we listening? Is everyone at the table? Are we creating common ground?”

Hannibal workshop

The Watershed Leaders Network plans a workshop August 6-7 in Hannibal, Missouri. The event is advertised as an opportunity to meet peers from Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri and Wisconsin, who are working for profitable farms, and healthy streams and fish. Participants will hear local watershed success stories, share projects and experiences, ask questions, build skills and knowledge, and strategize away from daily demands.

To register for the workshop, go to (Watershed Leaders Network). The fee for the two-day program with food is $85. There is an optional evening river boat cruise for an additional $30.

Steering Committee

The Upper Mississippi Fishers and Farmers (F&F) Partnership has a Steering Committee, and always elects two co-chairpersons - a farmer and a scientist.

One Co-Chairperson of the Upper Mississippi Fishers and Farmers Steering Committee, Rod Ofte, shared his family’s history with the group in attendance at their summer gathering held in the Coon Creek Watershed.

Ofte explained that the Neprud family, for whom a public hunting and fishing area in the watershed is named, were Norwegians and some of the first settlers in the valley.  The family at one time owned thousands of acres in the Coon Creek Watershed. 

Rod Ofte’s great-great uncle Gunlik Ofte, was sponsored to come to America in 1847 by a member of the Neprud family. Gunlik was followed by his younger brother, Saave in 1860. Saave was Rod Ofte’s great grandfather.

Ofte’s grandfather, Setles, occupied the home farm during the founding of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp in Coon Valley and supplied the workers with pork.

Ofte operates a grassfed beef operation on his land. He also works as General Manager of the Wisconsin Grassfed Beef Cooperative, has Oak Savanna restoration and Prairie Buffer Strips projects on his land, and is a consultant to the Wallace Center Pasture Project.

In addition to all of that, Ofte has been on the Vernon County Board of Supervisors for three years.  He serves on the Land and Water, Agriculture and UW-Extension Committees.  He is also a state representative on the Wisconsin Counties Association, Ag and Land Use Committee.

The scientist who co-chairs the Steering Committee with Ofte is Matthew Mitro, Research Scientist with the WDNR Science Operations Center in Madison, conservationist and fisher. Mitro has been the WDNR representative for Fishers & Farmers Fish Habitat Partnership since 2010.

Mitro has worked for WDNR for 15 years, primarily working on brook trout and brown trout in Wisconsin’s inland streams. He works statewide, and currently has projects in the Driftless Area and in northern, northeastern, and central Wisconsin.

Mitro attended Colgate University where he earned a BA in biology, the University of Vermont where he earned a MS in fisheries biology, and Montana State University where he took his PhD in fisheries biology and MS in statistics.

 “I have participated in two Watershed Leaders Network (WLN) workshops and think they are an important complement to Fishers & Farmers,” Mitro said. “As such, I work to ensure Fishers and Farmers is supporting WLN, and the work they do.”

Mitro said that F&F came about in recognition of the importance of agriculture in the Upper Mississippi River Basin. To have healthy streams and healthy fish, Mitro sees that the conservation community needs to enlist the help of farmers, given how prevalent agriculture is in the basin.

“The approach of F&F is to have natural resource agencies and agricultural representatives sitting together at the table as equals to address common goals of conserving natural resources (soil, water, fish, etc.) while supporting farming,” Mitro explained. “We want both farms and fish to thrive. WLN is important because it helps put the people who live and work in a watershed in leadership positions to make decisions that affect their watershed.”

Other members of the Upper Mississippi Fishers and Farmers Steering Committee include:

Jack Lauer - Southern Regional Fisheries Manager, Minnesota DNR

Mike Steuck - Regional Fisheries Supervisor, Iowa DNR

Heidi Keuler - Fish Habitat Biologist, FFP Coordinator, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, LaCrosse, Wisconsin

Sherry Fischer - Stream & Watershed Chief, Fisheries Division, Missouri Department of Conservation

Nancy North - Consultant, Watershed Leaders Network Lead, NewGround Inc., Lanesboro, Minnesota

Steve Sodeman - Farmer, Retired Ag Consultant, Minnesota Corn Growers

Mark Vehlewald - Consultant, President of FYN Consulting, Illinois

Adam Kiel - Operations Manager of Water Resources, Iowa Soybean Association

Matt Lechner - Natural Resources Program Manager, U.S. Forest Service - Shawnee National Forest, Illinois

Trent Thomas - Streams Biologist, Illinois DNR

Terry Spence - Missouri Rancher, Family Farms for the Future, Citizens Legal Environmental Action Network, Missouri

Tommy Lange - Director of Finance & Accounting, National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium, Dubuque, Iowa

Funded projects

Fishers & Farmers Partnership awards funding from the National Fish Habitat Partnership-USFWS to locally led projects in the upper Mississippi River Basin watersheds each year. Funded projects improve farms and fish habitat; address a root cause of watershed problems; support landowner engagement, communications, monitoring, science, or construction; and align with F&F’s strategic plan.

Applicants are non-government, county, state, and federal agriculture and natural resources organizations. One-to-one cost share is required. Applications are generally due in October and decisions are made in the last quarter of each year.

Since 2018, they have funded 29 projects across the five state area, including two in the Kickapoo River Valley and one in the Tainter Creek Watershed.

At their Steering Committee meeting held in Coon Valley, the farmers of the Tainter Creek Watershed Council and allied conservation partners were invited to attend and tell their story.

The Tainter Creek Watershed Council’s upcoming ‘Reducing Costs and Flood Impacts on the Farm’ event, featuring nationally known soil health expert Ray Archuleta is posted on the WLN website. The Wednesday, July 25, 6-9:30 p.m. and Thursday, July 26, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., events will take place on the farm of Watershed Council members Brian and Laura McCulloh, Woodhill Farms, at S7589 Tainter Hollow Road, Viroqua, WI, 54665. There will also be a pancake breakfast with Archuleta for 4-H and FFA members from 7 to 9 a.m. Thursday morning – pre-registration required.  To register, contact Sarah, Vernon Land and Water Conservation Department, 608-637-5480.