Peninsula Pride Farms (PPF) and the Kewaunee County Soil and Water Conservation Department head Davina Bonness had the spotlight for discussion on groundwater quality. Kewaunee County supervisor Chuck Wagner said the recognition by farmers that they are the primary source of groundwater pollution was a big step.
“If what we’re doing on the surface impacts the water that everyone needs to drink, we somehow have to come up with a better way,” said Wagner.
Bonness outlined the manure spreading ordinance Kewaunee County Board passed in 2014, unanimously by the county supervisors and by an 83 percent margin countywide, and more groundwater protection measures her department promoted this year.
“This really shows groundwater is extremely important to protect in Kewaunee County and our landowners know that,” said Bonness of the manure spreading vote. From there, Bonness and her department drafted additional ordinance limiting waste irrigation, or how manure is spread on a field, and reporting requirements for non-CAFO farms.
“We need to know what’s going on the land,” said Bonness. “We know with CAFOs but we don’t know with small farms.”
Leading up to the DNR’s revision of NR 151 this year, which will change regulation for groundwater pollution for the shallow-soil karst topography of Door and Kewaunee counties, conservationists have stressed that both large and small farms can cause water contamination.
Bonness said requirement that all farms report their manure spreading before they spread on fields would be on a voluntary basis through 2018. If farms participate and information on nutrient spreading is improved, the county would not take the heavy-handed approach at requiring compliance and potentially expensive mandates.
“Small farms and medium farms should be giving us what they are doing even if they’re not a CAFO,” said Bonness. “Our county board chairman said if this doesn’t work then he will take the additional action. I really believe we’re going to get what we need and get the results that we want to achieve through this voluntary measure.”
Don Niles and John Pagel of the farmer-led conservation initiative PPF also sat on the groundwater quality panel with Bonness. Niles outlined the work PPF has done for the area while recognizing agriculture’s role in the pollution problem.
“We believe Kewaunee County and southern Door County can have clean, safe drinking water and a thriving agricultural community at the same time,” said Niles. “Agriculture is the greatest use of lands and it stands to reason that we’re the most significant impact to groundwater quality. Our group embraces that truth.”
These farmer-led initiatives appeared to be the only way to achieve compliance from the entire farming community.
“We need to have more than half the farms participating,” said Jim Baumann, retired water quality engineer at the Department of Natural Resources. “We can no longer go back and say we had 50 percent participation, that it’s good enough.”
“We have to do a better job of having farmers talk to farmers,” said Paul Zimmerman, executive director of government relations for the Wisconsin Farm Bureau.
Those conversations begin with projects such as cover crops, which some Kewaunee County farmers have begun planting to help soil hold on to excess nutrients.
“It costs us $12 an acre to do it,” said Pagel. “Sometimes it’s hard to see the return on investment but I believe we will start to see the return on investment as we continue to use these practices.”
Until those pilot programs and their returns are successful and that success is shared with neighboring farmers, the program will have minimal impact on the entire watershed.
Projects such as manure storage facilities, grass swales and biodigesters will probably not have a short-term return on investment, and the panel did not discuss who will pay for the initial investment.
Read more about the topics discussed at the conference.