Members Say Goal of Peninsula Pride Farms is Conservation, Not PR Scam

Almost immediately after the March 31, 2016, announcement of the creation of an environmental stewardship coalition created by farmers calling themselves Peninsula Pride Farms, the Pulse started getting messages from people saying we had to expose the group for being just a “public relations” scheme for industrial farms.

While it’s true that one of the participating farms has 6,000 cows, another PPF member has 60 cows, and its vice president, Guy Overbeck, is strictly a row crop farmer. The group’s goal is about promoting better farming practices for farms of all sizes.

Tony Brey

“We’re trying to show results,” said Tony Brey, a PPF board member and fourth generation farmer on Cycle Farms, a century farm in Southern Door. “I think actions are going to speak louder than words. Our goal is to show that the dairy community can prosper and we can have clean water as well. That’s our goal and what all our projects are working toward.

“We don’t think we can convince everyone,” added PPF President Don Niles, a veterinarian turned farmer at Dairy Dreams in Kewaunee County. “You just get into that thing where farmers and environmentalists lob insults at each other from their trenches. That wasn’t honorable and it wasn’t productive.”

“And it doesn’t get results. That’s what we’re looking for,” Brey said.

An indication of the seriousness of an organization is how it is viewed by the outside world.

“They’re heading in a lot of different directions that I think will be really positive,” said Sara Walling, chief of the Nutrient Management and Water Quality Section of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

She and program director Rachel Rushmann are in contact with all 15 farmer-led coalitions that have formed in the state. Most of these groups – including Peninsula Pride Farms – have popped up since the state created the grant program for such groups two years ago, but they are all modeled after five farmer organizations that were already in existence and that really prompted the state to realize farmer-led environmental stewardship was a real thing that it should help support.

“Five started before we ever had funding available through the state, four up in the northwest and the Yahara Pride Farms in Dane County . They were functioning without any support from this program. The first five groups really set the groundwork that this can be something viable and successful.”

And those five, she said, were modeled after a program in northeast Iowa that began in 2004, the Hewitt Creek Watershed ( Since their formation, with an 83 percent participation rate by farmers in the watershed, the phosphorus load has been reduced by 12,881 pounds annually and reduced the annual sediment load by 10,054 tons annually.

Using that as the model, DATCP saw this is a way to address similar problems in watersheds throughout Wisconsin.

“The program goal is to increase farmer participation in conservation in a given watershed, and hope those conservation efforts will grow to other farmers in the watershed and improve the soil health and water quality in that watershed as well,” Walling said.

DATCP has been providing what they call producer-led watershed protection grants for two years. Peninsula Pride Farms was awarded $20,000 in each grant cycle. The grants are to be used specifically for developing and practicing ways to keep nutrients out of the watershed, as well as measuring and promoting economic and environmental benefits of conservation practices. Innovation is a key word in the grant process.

“Maybe one of the best ways to answer the fundamental question of are we a PR organization or not, we’ve got two complete different thrusts – one for protecting surface water and one for groundwater,” Niles said. “These are two separate programs in our organization because they have two completely different approaches.”

Don Niles

Ultimately, Niles said, “We’ve got to understand what practices are causing the risk and what can we do to change that.”

In addition to forming the group as a 501(c)(3) organization in its first year, the PPF entered into a nutrient use efficiency study with UW Discovery Farms that will determine nitrogen efficiency by studying applications of nitrogen, measuring it in the soil and in the resulting crops and post-harvest soil.

“That’s a multi-year study and we’re excited about that,” Niles said.

They have also started a cover crop challenge to encourage members to plant more cover crops, which prevents erosion and phosphorus dispersion.

“Plant something green either before harvesting corn or right after to keep the soil in place and so the phosphorus doesn’t escape,” he said. “We established a baseline of cover crops of 48,300 acres, which is really big.”

That, he said, led to an average of 2.34 pounds of phosphorus loss per acre in the past growing season. The state allowable level is six pounds per acre.

“So we’re well below that, but our organization isn’t about just meeting the rules, but how to continuously improve,” Niles said. “But in terms of protecting surface water, we’ve got a darn good start there. We’re not done yet.”

One of the goals for this year is maintaining and growing membership. Niles said the organization will be looking for new recruits at its Jan. 25 meeting. He said the group started slowly because their consultant, Dennis Frame, had to go through the nutrient management plan of each member looking for best practices, and could only take on so many at the start.

“Initial membership represents about 40 percent of cows and tillable acres in Kewaunee and southern Door County,” Niles said. “With our first annual meeting coming up here on the 25th, we’ll be opening it up to new members.”

The nitrogen study begins this year on multiple fields on seven farms. They will also begin a three-year study of new technologies for environmental stewardship with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Services, on four Peninsula Pride member farms. They are also partnering with Steve Hanson of the Kewaunee County Land Information office and the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey to use cutting-edge technology to more precisely determine soil depth and sinkhole locations, with the goal of improved soil maps for nutrient application.

They are also exploring a program to use yeast in reducing pathogens in manure. They also hope to establish a working group dedicated to studying the potential water-based health concerns on the peninsula with local health care organizations and county health departments.

“More localized research is the key,” Brey said. “That’s how we’re trying to help. Some of these opportunities have come because they see us as an ally for this research.”

But both men acknowledge that some of the research territory being explored by PPF will be applicable to farmers everywhere.

“We have people now coming to us with projects,” Niles said.

Last year the group also received more than $50,000 in community support donations, mostly from health care organizations and banks, Niles said. A portion of that has been used to start their Water Well program to assist anyone in Kewaunee County or Southern Door with E.coli well contamination. Four households are currently being assisted through that program.

The group hopes to add more business supporters to help run the organization.

“We have a goal to establish 10 pledges of $10,000 each for five years from local supporting businesses so we can help finance our ongoing programs,” Niles said. “Right now we’re a bunch of guys who get together once a month at the end of the day and before we fall asleep we have a meeting. We’ve got enough going on now that we should have half-time administrator, somebody who can just keep things going while the rest of us our running our farms, so we’ll be looking for funding.”

The annual meeting and conservation seminar featuring Dan Brick of Brickstead Dairy in Greenleaf speaking on low disturbance manure applications and cover crops takes place at JW’s Place in Casco, starting at 9 am on Jan. 25. RSVP to Ann Niles at [email protected] or 920.304.0300.

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