For John Jacobs, a first-generation farmer in Krakow, Wisconsin, farming is all about achieving balance.
“Nutrients need to be in balance in the soil, in the cattle and in the people,” he said. “You only get one chance a year and I’m not going to live forever. I want this stuff to happen now. I think we’re really making progress, at least in knowing what to do.”
At the first meeting of Save the Bay with newly elected Congressman Mike Gallagher in February, Gallagher relied several times on Jacobs to give input on subjects. Gallagher inherited Save the Bay from former Congressman Reid Ribble, who decided three terms in Washington was enough for him.
“My time goes back to Reid,” Jacobs said. “I got to know him a long time ago. When the algae blooms started to be a significant issue, he came to me and said, ‘John, explain this to me. What are you doing about it?’”
At the beginning of this century, Jacobs and his brother Mark started Green Valley Dairy with 1,500 cows. Thirteen years later, while growing their operation to 3,500 cows, the Jacobs were recognized by the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy for achievements in renewable energy and for being an effective and competitive business model.
“I want to be the guy that’s profitable and growing, and, by the way, saving the environment. That’s just a win, win, win,” Jacobs said. “I can’t tell you that I have everything figured out. I’ve spent millions of dollars, literally, on doing this, and really tried to research and do the right things.”
That is what has led him to the conclusion of balance.
“I can go in there and balance a cow’s diet and keep their body conditions just right. I can do the same thing with soil. I can soil test and keep the right balance of nutrients,” Jacobs said. “If I’m putting nutrients in the ground, last thing I want to do is for it to be running into the groundwater because the stuff is costing me 50 cents a pound.”
Jacobs admits he has spent a lot of money to do the right thing.
“But long-term, I think we’re going to be at a real competitive advantage,” Jacobs said. “We’re farmers but we’re still businessmen.”
Jacobs likes to see the big picture and that includes agricultural history.
“These conservation concepts of cover crops and low disturbance of the soil have been around since the ’30s when the Dust Bowl hit Washington and they created the NRCS,” Jacobs said.
The NRCS is the Natural Resources Conservation Service. “I rely pretty heavily on Barry Bubolz of NRCS. I get a little discouraged and he gives me a call.”
“I’m very positive about the changes we are already seeing,” said Bubolz, NRCS District Conservationist and Area Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) Coordinator.
Based in Shawano, Bubolz has been working with six farms in the Lower Fox River Watershed on best management practices. The six are called Demonstration — or Demo — Farms.
“These Demo Farms are meant to showcase the best practices and multiply the results out to other farmers,” Bubolz said. “We’re working with them to showcase conservation practices, maybe newer approaches and different management to reduce sediment and nutrient runoff from those farms. The real benefit in the Demo Farms is when farmers are sharing with other farmers practices that are working, that’s a really effective way of promoting conservation, a network of farmers trying things between themselves, mistakes and successes. That, in a nutshell, is a big part of what we’re doing.”
Some of those practices include low-disturbance tilling, growing cover crops and edge-of-field monitoring.
“We’re certain we’re going to see reduced sediment coming off these fields. That’s a really powerful and strong story to validate what conservation is doing on this landscape,” Bubolz said. “Everyone wants results immediately, but it takes a little bit of time to get those quantifiable numbers. When you talk to the farmers, they can tell you the difference of having cover crops out there, when you see clean water running off a field rather than sediment.”
Bubolz said he was happy to see Gallagher continue the Save the Bay initiative that was started by his predecessor, Ribble.
“Rep. Ribble was very instrumental in his Save the Bay approach and his support for the GLRI. Rep. Gallagher has continued that same commitment. We’re working very closely with him,” Bubolz said.
But ultimately, Bubolz said, it is the progressive, conservation-minded farmers who are going to make the difference in whether the Green Bay dead zone disappears.
“There’s a really nice, positive message about agriculture,” he said. “The Demonstration Farms are promoting the positive aspects of agriculture and address some of the resource concerns such as sediment and water quality. This project has really shown the willingness of the agricultural community to step up. We got a great start, we’ve just got to keep our foot on the gas. Let’s keep getting more people on the wagon.”
The Lower Fox Demonstration Farm Network is partnering to offer farmers conservation advice and tips. Click here to learn more about soil health, water quality and the technical and financial assistance available through NRCS. If you are interested in attending a future Demonstration Farm Field Day, visit glc.org/projects/water-quality/foxdemo/ to learn more.
We talked to some of the farmers who were called upon by Reid Ribble to save our shores. Here’s what they’re doing.