In the rolling country of western Wisconsin, north of New Richmond, fields of corn and soybeans are interrupted by woods, water, and homesteads. It’s also the location of a groundbreaking effort to balance the farming business with beloved lakes and rivers.
The pastoral scenes don’t give many clues to the complicated connections between the farms and the waters, but the issue of runoff, nutrient pollution, and soupy green lakes is on everyone’s mind.
As reported on St. Croix 360 shortly after the effort began in 2014, the Horse Creek Area Farmer-Led Watershed Council comprises a group of farmers seeking to reduce runoff from their fields — while also producing crops that can compete in the global agricultural market.
The Horse Creek Council was one of the first of its kind in Wisconsin, inspired by successful efforts in Iowa. Based in part on its success, the state legislature launched a grant program in 2016 to support similar coalitions. There are now at least 19 such councils across the state, including another in the St. Croix River region: the South Kinni Council.
There have been lots of efforts to reduce runoff from farms, but these projects are different. The key is that the farmers themselves are charting the course toward cleaner water.
The farmers pick the conservation methods that work best in their area. The farmers choose the financial incentives for their neighbors who participate. The farmers host events to share knowledge and help others adopt better practices.
The group is supported by private and public partners, including not just the state of Wisconsin but the McKnight Foundation, the county, and the University of Wisconsin — but the farmers are in charge.
Four years ago, farmer and council co-founder Brad Johnson expressed optimism about the initiative, and urged patience. “In the farming business, very few things are attainable immediately. I believe we are going to get there, but it takes time.”
On a sunny morning last summer, four of the farmers and Polk County conservation planner Eric Wojchik gathered at the edge of a field and shared how Johnson’s prediction is coming to pass.
Saving Cedar Lake — and the St. Croix
The farmers of this council live, plant, and harvest in the 50 square miles that drain toward Horse Creek. Horse Creek flows into popular Cedar Lake, then the Apple River, which ultimately joins the St. Croix. (The group has also expanded to a neighboring watershed where farmers wanted to get involved.)
Cedar Lake is 1,100 acres of water ringed by docks and beaches, populated by pontoons and fishing boats. But it has become less lovely lately due to algae blooms. The stuff stinks and sticks to everything, and can produce toxins harmful to people and animals.
The algae blooms are fueled by increased nutrients running off the surrounding landscape — a process which also degrades farm fields and wastes time and money.
People who live on the lake, or like to boat, swim, and fish in it, have gone to great lengths to improve its water. Property owners, with state and local grants, have contributed significant funds to treat it with a compound of aluminum and potassium, which can remove nutrients from the water. It’s a costly solution that’s not possible on many lakes.
The fact the farmers are working to slow the flow of nutrients into the lake was one of the reasons it made sense to do the alum treatment.
“They are the folks who have been at the forefront, leading the way to make sure the water coming into Cedar Lake is clean,” Dan Early, who led the alum treatment project, told the New Richmond News.
Excess nutrients are not just a concern in Cedar Lake, but downstream in the St. Croix, which the Apple joins a few miles above Stillwater. The lower river also suffers from excess nutrients, also fueling algae blooms along beaches and disrupting the food web.
The Apple is one of the primary contributors of phosphorus to the lower St. Croix, so any work upstream is also good for the Wild & Scenic river.
Reducing runoff isn’t as easy as deciding to do something different. These farmers may know what they need to do, but the trick is figuring out how to do it, how to change ways they’ve been working for decades, and how to still make a living.
These fields and the water downstream are affected by forces far from the farms.
Most farmers face the same financial challenges as any commodity producer: they don’t control the prices of their products, and sell to most of the same buyers. They operate according to national policy, and sell in a global market. You can find Horse Creek watershed soybeans in Tokyo warehouses.
Many farmers don’t have much of a say in matters in the current system, they just need to produce as much as they can on every acre of land they can.
Researchers who study the connections between land and water have traced how distant decisions by consumers, policy-makers, and corporations have ultimately caused increases in sediment and algae in America’s lakes in rivers.
“We can’t fix this problem until we look at what we grow and how we grow it,” says Dr. Shawn Schottler of the St. Croix Watershed Research Station, who lives and farm not far from the Horse Creek watershed. “The need for new crops and cropping systems is almost undeniable, but how we get there remains a clunky puzzle.”
The farmers of the Horse Creek watershed are looking at many pieces of that puzzle.
One of the forces they face is the fact that corn and soybeans have become the most popular crops in America. It’s hard to making a living growing much else.
These crops grow fast, and are replanted each spring, so fields are bare dirt much of the year. Because rain runs off bare ground quickly, exposed soil can cause increased nutrient and sediment runoff. Additionally, fertilizer is often needed to produce the quantities the market demands.
As long as the ground is bare for much of the year, and fertilizer is required, water problems will persist.
“The best way to make real progress on farm runoff is getting more vegetation on more fields, more of the time,” Schottler says.
Figuring out how to keep vegetation on the fields during fall, winter, and spring is key. Growing such “cover crops” can have a huge impact on runoff, but it can also delay planting, or give pests a home.
How to get the benefits of cover crops while avoiding the downsides can vary from place to place depending on soil, climate, and other conditions. Unless the crops can be sold for a profit, it can also cut into meager margins.
That’s where the farmers’ knowledge comes in, based on generations of experience.
Blazing a path
On one corner of Timm Johnson’s fields, there are 15 acres of soybean plants. The plants don’t look any different, but they are part of a careful experiment intended to help them decide the best ways to do cover crops.
The land is split into one-acre plots, and five different cropping methods are tried every year, replicated three times. This lets the farmers and partners carefully study how much each acre produces, as well as how it affects the land’s ability to hold runoff.
“There are lots of questions about if cover crops work in this growing zone,” Timm Johnson says. Being on the northern edge of America’s “Corn Belt,” the growing season is shorter, and the winters are colder.
The experiments have pointed them to the most efficient and effective practices. They have found that the costs to plant these crops, including winter rye and even radishes, are minimal. The effect on corn or soybean yields is also low.
The results from the test plots this year also point to another advantage of conservation-minded farming: resilience in the face of a changing climate.
“When I was a kid, big rains would cover the whole upper Midwest for a few days, soaking everything,” Brad Johnson says. He observes that the trend today is several inches of rain falling in a short time on smaller areas.
He was speaking just a couple weeks after a rainstorm dumped six inches on the Snake River area of Minnesota in the span of a couple hours. The St. Croix was still running high. Meanwhile, the Horse Creek watershed was a little below average rainfall amounts for that date.
By the end of the farming season, the area was short five inches of rain from average. That was down 37 percent. While traditionally-planted crops suffered with lower yields, the soil in areas with cover crops and other practices held more water, and the yields were higher.
“As our weather patterns become more erratic, with higher precipitation events that are spaced further apart, harvesting precipitation and holding it in the soil will be a major benefit to crop producers,” their report on the test plots says.
Holding that water is not only good for yields, but reduces nutrient runoff into Horse Creek.
Nonetheless, change can be costly, sometimes requiring new equipment, and farming profits are slim in the first place. And most farmers do things the way they always have, hesitant to try untested practices.
That’s why the farmer-led council is so important. They can experiment, determine what works locally, and then help their neighbors get started.
The Horse Creek farmers believe that just by using cover crops and other practices, they are showing their neighbors it can work, and setting an example for a better future.
Growing for good
Even four years is a short time in changing farming or water quality. But the farmers have been encouraged by runoff reductions they’ve already measured.
They are also excited to see cover crops and other practices spreading to neighboring farms.
Since the council started its work, the amount of farmland using cover crops has more than doubled, growing from 591 acres in 2015 to 1,125 acres this year.
That’s almost 10 percent of the farming acres in the Horse Creek watershed.
Remarkably, it includes lands where the farmers are not participating in the council’s incentive program. Simply seeing that cover crops can work, and hearing about how to do it from their neighbors, has inspired some farmers to try it.
The changes are having a positive impact on the watershed, with falling rates of runoff. Cover crops in the watershed have reduced nitrogen runoff by about 6,000 pounds, phosphorus by 1,700 pounds, and sediment by 159 tons per year.
“We’ve been trying to get conservation on the landscape for years,” Polk County’s Wojchik says. “It’s costly, and has had limited impact.”
When the Horse Creek Council launched, it pointed out this discrepancy, and its failings, in a report.
“Strategies to-date have largely focused on the development of technical tools for assessment and improvements,” the document reads. “However, those strategies have missed the human social factors – farmers internalizing the need for better water quality, and making long-term coordinated management decisions based on that internalization – necessary for the widespread diffusion of those tools and sustainable water quality improvements.”
The accomplishments of the Horse Creek Council show how partnering with farmers can lead to the positive changes many people have been trying to achieve for decades.
And, of course, nothing happens quickly in farming — or in water. The farmers of the Horse Creek Council are in it for the long haul.