Farmers Doing ‘Groundwork’ to Restore St. Croix River Water

A radical new approach to letting those who work the land lead the way to reduce runoff.




7 minute read

Brad Johnson has been farming in Star Prairie, Wisconsin for more than 40 years, growing corn and soybeans. His son recently moved back to the farm, becoming the fourth generation to work the land. Johnson says he wants to leave the farm’s soil healthy for his son and generations to come, so they too can continue the family business. He wants to make a living in an era when crop prices have plummeted.  He wants his local lake and the rivers downstream to be healthy.

So, he doesn’t till his corn and soybean fields. Instead, Johnson leaves as much plant debris on the soil as he can – it looks messy, but it saves him a lot of time and money, and it drastically slows down rain and snow runoff. Because the water reaches a popular local lake, and eventually the St. Croix River, reducing runoff is important.

Johnson has seen remarkable results from his farming practices. At the edge of one of his fields is a new monitor that measures how much water runs off it. This year, there was no measurable runoff. None.

“I was just plain stunned,” Johnson says. “How is that possible?”

It’s possible partly because of how farmers like him deeply understand their own land, as well as their local climate, soil, water bodies, and neighbors. It could also be possible for other farmers in the area who participate in new initiative underway in a few parts of St. Croix River country. It has the hopeful feeling of a revolution – one that might achieve results that have long been elusive in improving water quality impacts from agricultural land.

“We have to recognize that every farm, every lake and river, every farmer, is different. This lets people who are local experts in what practices work best share that knowledge,” says Deb Ryun, executive director of the St. Croix River Association.

Water work

The project is driven by a goal of restoring the St. Croix’s water quality to 1940s levels, before farms, cities, and other development significantly affected the river. This will mean reducing phosphorus discharges into Lake St. Croix by about 20 percent, to 360 tons/year. (That goal is one reason this site is named St. Croix 360.) A massive effort across two states and multiple organizations is underway to reach that number by 2020.

Rain that falls on Johnson’s farm eventually finds its way to Cedar Lake, which has high levels of phosphorus and the algae problems that come with it. From the lake, the water flows down the Apple River to the St. Croix, which also suffers algae blooms in the dog days of summer due to excess nutrients, and where the water has been listed as impaired by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“The Apple watershed is one of our biggest priorities for improving water quality. It’s the biggest contributor of phosphorus to the St. Croix,” says Ryun. “We have to use all available methods to address runoff problems in the watershed.”

While it is perhaps best known for tubing and camping in Somerset, the Apple is 77.5 miles long and fed by about 400 square miles of western Wisconsin, much of it some of the best farming country in the region. While some of the farms, like Brad Johnson’s, are taking big steps to reduce phosphorus runoff, some of them are not. Julia Olmstead empathizes.

Working for the University of Wisconsin – River Falls Extension, the new coordinator of the Farmer-Led Watershed Council says farmers are increasingly stuck between two opposing forces: federal farm policy, and environmental regulations.

“On one hand, we have created an agricultural policy in this country that is intended to maximize production,” Olmstead says. “It’s a tough position to be told ‘farm as much as you can’ and ‘clean that up.’ They’re in a tough place, so how can we help them find that sweet spot where they are successful and not having that same impact?”

Sustainable sweet spot

Johnson seems to have found a way to balance his business and his stewardship. His conservation practices are actually helping his farm stay financially sound, despite falling crop prices. Not tilling his fields between plantings and harvests reduces his expenses, in addition to keeping his soil healthy and preventing runoff.

“By virtue of fuel saved and reduced number of passes to sow a crop, we save an immense amount of money on diesel fuel and hours on tractors and implements and general. Maintenance costs are minimal,” Johnson says.

Johnson says his soybeans grow “as well or better” than those on neighboring farms where the soil is routinely tilled. His corn has “done well,” but he can’t say if yields are quite as high as on tilled farms. He is bracing for at least a few more years of corn prices at four dollars a bushel, and soybeans at 10 dollars. With corn typically costing five dollars per bushel to produce, the math just doesn’t add up.

“Farming isn’t as much fun with crop prices so terrible,” Johnson dryly reports. But hard times can actually be good opportunities to try new things to reduce expenses.

“I would like to believe people will be paying more attention to their soil testing program and how they apply fertilizers. Diesel has not declined the way gas prices have, I would like to think they will consider reduced tillage. I would hope this would motivate them to look at no-till and getting interested in farmer-led programs,” he says.

Johnson says many farmers feel like they “have to” till their land. He offers his farm as evidence that they don’t. While Johnson is doing what he can on his own 500 acres to reduce costs and runoff, he is also talking his walk, as a leader in his local farmer-led council.

Collaborative conservation

Farmer-led programs are nothing short of a revolution, if you ask Buzz Sorge, a water quality expert with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

“I wish I was 20 years younger, it’s exciting, bringing in this social dimension of conservation,” Sorge says.

The program lets farmers lead the way on improving water quality. It also gives them the opportunity to decide best practices in their local watershed, and offer financial incentives to ease the burden of implementation.

Sorge says the projects help him feel hopeful after decades of effort and little progress on adoption of farming practices that protect clean water. The “old model” of water and agriculture experts telling farmers what they should do and then expecting them to do it has shown its limitations.

“We were all trained as technocrats,” Sorge says. The idea was that public agency staff trained in water quality issues and sustainable farming would develop policies and practices, and then persuade farmers to get behind it. “But you can talk about this and it just doesn’t work,” he says. Now, he is hopeful that farmers will be the ones talking about conservation, and doing it.

But while he’s optimistic, he also urges patience. The farmer-led councils are a long-term strategy, requiring commitment and patience to see the results that have eluded previous efforts. 

“You will have to go through a period of a few years at the onset, where everybody begins to understand the issue, talks about it in their communities, lets this change on this community timeframe,” Sorge says. “Think back about things you’ve been involved in things in your community: building a hospital, school, churches, it takes at least 10 years, why is it any different with water quality and agriculture?”

Johnson agrees. “In the farming business, very few things are attainable immediately. I believe we are going to get there, but it takes time,” he says.

Iowa innovation

The hope rests on the impressive results seen elsewhere. Farmer-led conservation was pioneered in Iowa, where sociologists, public agencies, and farmers figured out that putting farmers in the driver’s seat was far more successful than trying to drag them into conservation practices that were often ill-fitted to their farms.

In the Hewitt Creek watershed in northeastern Iowa, more than two-thirds of farmers and landowners participate in the farmer-led program. Significant improvements have been made in how much sediment and nutrients reach water bodies, and in at least one local stream that was once so polluted that fish and other life was suffering, populations are beginning to rebound.

One of the Iowa State sociologists who helped found the watershed projects there, Lois Wright Morton, literally wrote the book on this new strategy. “Pathways to Getting to Better Water Quality: The Citizen Effect” describes how conservation isn’t just about changing how we farm, but how we work together.

“It is the human capacity to think and act that is the source of polluted and degraded waters. This same capacity also offers hope for finding new pathways for solving increasingly complex water problems,” Wright Morton and her co-author Susan Brown wrote.

The team of scientists and agency staff working on restoring Lake St. Croix studied Wright Morton extensively.

“That was my nighttime and daytime reading,” Sorge says. “It really explained the importance of the human dimension, understanding rural communities, farm communities, the stresses they’re dealing with, how they make decisions. We understand the technical side of water management, but getting it to happen on a landscape basis is really challenging.”

How it works is that local farmers like Johnson are organized into a council. They learn about water quality issues and conservation practices from experts. Then they decide what practices they want to prioritize in the coming year, and offer financial incentives to offset the cost for farmers.

The money for the incentives comes from a grant provided by the McKnight Foundation. Without the help of that foundation, the program might not work.

“It’s unlike state or federal funding it would have a lot of restrictions, and gives farms a lot of flexibility,” says the UW Extension’s Olmstead. “It’s not a lot of money, I would say that farmers typically got less than a $1000, a few hundred bucks, but it’s enough to give something a shot.”

Sowing the seeds

Winter rye poking up on Brad Johnson's farm.
Winter rye poking up on Brad Johnson’s farm. (Photo by Eric Wojchik, Polk County)

The farmer-led councils in western Wisconsin are the prototype for this new way of addressing water pollution from agricultural lands. If successful, the project could set an example across the state, and across the St. Croix River watershed.

“Back in the 30s and 40s, conservation work was done one-on-one in the field, and then it got away from that, and now we are seeing success with that model again,” says the SCRA’s Ryun. “If it helps the farmers who are already conservation minded become more effective, giving them tools and leadership, they could bring more of their neighbors into the effort.”

This fall, after harvesting his crops, Johnson planted a new seed, winter rye, on a few acres. Sprouts popped up just a few days after it was planted, despite the late season weather, and the grassy grain will stay there all winter. After the snow melts, it will grow some more and then be harvested, when it can be used as livestock feeds. In the meantime, its roots will anchor the soil in place during the melt and spring rains.

Not content to just leave plant detritus on the soil between plantings, these practices keep something growing on the field at almost all times. It prevents erosion, and can also provide a harvest, and income, during a time of year that is usually spent planting.

Program coordinator Olmstead says she thinks some of the councils will offer financial incentives for planting cover crops next year. There is a lot of excitement, she says, but, as always, it’s “entirely up to the farmers.”