Organic Broadcaster

Organic farmers access conservation programs to steward their land

By Caleb Langworthy

With over 1,300 certified farms in Wisconsin, the state is second in the nation for the number of organic operations. The state’s organic farms are as diverse as Wisconsin agriculture; each farm has unique factors that influence management of the operation. To address natural resource concerns on their land, some of these farmers seek help from the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS). The NRCS provides on-the-ground technical and financial support for diverse practices that can benefit the farm operation, address environmental concerns, and support continued stewardship.

Doran and Mariann Holm of Holm Boys Dairy in Elk Mound, Wis., have worked with NRCS since they purchased their farm 20 years ago.

“They helped us utilize all of the farm,” Doran said. “We have a great working relationship.” Their local NRCS office partnered with the Holms soon after they purchased their farm to improve soil health and pasture productivity by providing financial assistance when the farm installed a perimeter fence on the farm, interseeded pastures, and added on an erosion-control project behind their barn. The Holms have been very happy to work with their local conservationists.

“They are hard-working people who are proactive working with producers,” Doran added. “When they were working behind the barn to control erosion, Tammy was out here every day to make sure the project was done correctly.”

The Holms also worked with NRCS on a Grazing Management Conservation Activity Plan (CAP 110). The system designed for them helped improved forage across the farm and their ability to rotationally graze with just one person. “They have been great to work with,” Mariann explained. “Being organic, we have a common goal of improving the soil health on our farm.”

Tim Servais of Hamburg Hills Dairy also worked with NRCS to install fencing on his farm near Stoddard, in addition to installing cattle lanes and access roads.

“We’re so glad we went organic,” said Servais, who ships milk to Organic Valley. “The cattle are less stressed and are able to graze. My dad worked with NRCS, and I kept on following through on those conservation efforts.” he explained. Servais grows corn, corn silage, and hay on farm and worked with his local conservationist to install contour strips to prevent erosion in his fields.

“We recently marked out a couple hundred acres of contour strips at Hamburg Hills,” Servais said. “We’ve modified some of the existing contour strip widths and made them a bit wider and more uniform.” Servais also has used the NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to finance cover crops.

“I use cover crops, like winter rye, to combat erosion and help with weed suppression, since we farm organically,” he explained.

Mark Doudlah also tapped EQIP for cover crops. Doudlah has transitioned over 1,700 acres to organic production and attributes his success to the use of multi-species cover crops.

“The really cool part is how NRCS has actually helped and allowed us to do conservation practices, like cover crops,” he said. “Had we not made that connection of cover crops and organic practices with the help of NRCS, we wouldn’t be here today. Organic is all about cover crops for me.” Utilizing the EQIP program, Doudlah was able to plant cereal rye on all of his transitional acres.

“We planted cereal rye on all our corn acres. I knew I needed to transition to organic, but am farming one-third highly erodible land,” he explained. “After learning about crimped cereal rye, I thought we could do it.”

To help other farmers who are considering rye in their rotation, Doudlah offered this advice: “Getting cereal rye in timely in the fall right after harvest is key. The cereal rye provides a nice thick mat, which armors the soil from further erosion the rest of the year, conserves the moisture and feeds the biology a slow feed of carbon long-term. The root system of the rye is what typically feeds the soybean that year. The biomass above ground feeds the soil as it decomposes.”

Doudlah said he found NRCS to be a good partner in the switch to organic production. “Transitioning 1,750 acres has been a tremendous undertaking and a steep learning curve,” he said. “In the transition years, you are using organic inputs and getting conventional prices. So financial and technical assistance from NRCS through EQIP and CSP (Conservation Stewardship Program) can help. Fundamentally, I believe in organics, so we are all in.”

Conserving water resources was the goal of John Stauner when he bought James Lake Farms and began to transition 65 acres of cranberry marsh and 1,540 support acres to organic. He worked closely with an NRCS Resource Conservationist under a contribution agreement with the Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association, which completed an assessment of the operation’s current irrigation system and developed an irrigation management plan. That plan included recommendations for run times to provide adequate moisture for the crop. Stauner also worked with NRCS to upgrade the irrigation system on the farm.

“This marsh was the first in Wisconsin to have a solid set irrigation system in the 1950s—the same irrigation system that was here when we first purchased the farm back in 2006,” Stauner explained. “It was in serious need of rehabilitation.” Working with his resource conservationist and utilizing the EQIP program, he was able to update his system to a high-efficiency sprinkler system and replace 6,800 feet of undersized, leaky above-ground irrigation with buried pipeline. “The upgraded systems, with the help of NRCS, saves us a lot of water usage,” he added. “It also enables us to get more uniformity on the cranberry bed when we do irrigate.”

Many organic farmers have found that their farms are good candidates for the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), a program that works to incentivize enhancements on farms to enhance their stewardship. Servais of Hamburg Hills found CSP helpful, enrolling both his pasture and cropland into a program that coincides well with national organic standards. The Holms found that CSP enhancements were easy to accomplish, marking fence lines for wildlife and retrofitting their stock tank to provide a wildlife escape. Doudlah is using the CSP program to install over 60 acres in pollinator habitat on his field borders to act as the buffer required for organic production.

“The yearly CSP payments help protect pollinators and also helped us invest in the right equipment to plant cover crops successfully on our farm,” Doudlah explained. “It allowed us to plan and save for five years to get the tools for this to work.”

NRCS works with a broad spectrum of farming operations and landowners across Wisconsin providing technical and financial assistance to maintain and improve the natural resources of the area. Doran Holm added that the NRCS has “practical programs with hard-working people willing to do conservation work with us.” A quick phone call to your local USDA Service Center can be the best way to see how your farm can benefit from NRCS programs. To find the nearest center, click here.

Caleb Langworthy is a MOSES Organic Specialist working with the USDA-Natural Resource Conservation Service to educate agents on organic production practices.

From the July | August 2019 Issue


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