Farmers form growing conservation group in upper St. Croix watershed

Local farmers in northwestern Wisconsin are working together to improve their operations and impacts on lakes and rivers.




4 minute read

Farmers check out agricultural practices and discuss what works in northwest Wisconsin during a field day sponsored by the Shell Lake-Yellow River Farmer-Led Watershed Council. (Photo courtesy Shell Lake-Yellow River Farmer-Led Watershed Council)

A group of farmers in the area around Spooner, Wis. have been working with various partners for the past two years to create a farmer-led watershed council intended to protect the land, lakes, and streams in ways that work for them.

With funding from the state of Wisconsin, the Shell Lake-Yellow River Farmer-Led Watershed Council is able to educate their fellow agricultural producers about what works well in the region, and pay for farmers to implement practices that protect their soil and the waters downstream.

Such councils have slowly been starting up around agricultural areas in Wisconsin. They put farmers in charge, using their expertise and relationships to help spread conservation practices, with some help from Wisconsin taxpayers.

Photo by Greg Seitz, St. Croix 360

The Shell Lake-Yellow River watershed ultimately drains into the upper St. Croix River. There are 60 lakes, 14 streams, and lots of groundwater. Here are some other highlights supplied by the group:

  • The lower reaches of the Yellow River and Yellow Lake are home to 1 of 6 naturally reproducing lake sturgeon populations in the nation that have over 1,000 sturgeon. To say we have a unique resource is an understatement!
  • Shell Lake is listed as an Outstanding Water Resource by WI DNR, has naturally reproducing walleye, and is one of the best smallmouth bass lakes in Washburn County.
  • Several lakes in the watershed have healthy, abundant fish populations, including musky, largemouth bass, and panfish.
  • Benoit Lake has a small cisco population. Ciscos require cold water with good water quality to survive.
  • Several trout streams are present in the watershed, which depend on cold groundwater.
  • The Upper Clam River Watershed has high quality trout streams which are some of the best in the area.
Lake Sturgeon in the Yellow River (Photo by Jeffrey Kampa, Wisconsin DNR)

St. Croix 360 recently asked a few questions of Madeline Roberts, Natural Resources Extension Educator with Washburn County Extension, about what’s happening.

SC360: Why was the Shell-Lake Farmer-Led Watershed Council formed?

MR: The council was formed because of the success that Horse Creek Watershed Council and the other pilot councils experienced and from a desire to build relationships between farmers and lake groups.

SC360: What kinds of issues in the watershed is the group trying to address?

MR: The council is working on the issues of erosion control, soil health, nutrient management, and how to enhance soil and water resources while also being economically sustainable.

SC360: What has been accomplished so far?

MR: The council held 2 field days and 2 public education events in 2019. Last year the council provided over $11,000 in incentives to help local famers get started in conservation practices like cover crops and soil testing. We have also started long term research plots to see what practices work in northern Wisconsin to build soil health.

This year we have conservation practice signs on local fields to help educate the community on conservation practices and the work farmers are doing to protect water quality.

With the pandemic, the council was not able to hold field days as planned. Instead, we are working on developing educational videos on farming practices on council farms.

SC360: What are some of the challenges farmers are facing in the watershed?

MR: Some of the challenges farmers face in our watershed is the short growing season, sandy soils, and finding conservation practices that are also economically sustainable.

The Yellow River. (Courtesy Shell Lake-Yellow River Farmer-Led Watershed Council)

SC360: What are the plans for next year and beyond?

MR: We have applied for another year of funding from DATCP. If we are successful in getting the grant, we hope to offer our incentive program again and educational opportunities like field days. We hope to continue our long term soil health research plots as well.

SC360: Who has been involved?

MR: The council is currently made up of nine farmers representing a variety of operations, including cash crop, dairy, and rotationally grazed cattle and bison.

The council is supported in its work by UW-Madison Extension Washburn County, Burnett and Washburn County Land & Water Conservation Departments, Northwest Wisconsin Graziers Network, USDA-NRCS, and Wisconsin DNR. 


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Farmers form growing conservation group in upper St. Croix watershed