The National Resource Conservation Service issued a supplemental $5.3 million for conservation practices in selected Driftless area sub-watersheds
On a drizzly day this spring, Vernon County dairy farmer Tim Servais drove past one of his ridgetop fields. Rain had been falling for a week. The ground was saturated. “You shouldn’t have water standing on the ridge. That means it’s pretty doggone wet out there,” he said, pointing to a puddle in a field of alfalfa. On ridgetop land like his, the risk of soil or nutrients running off is high. But the alfalfa, a cover crop, helps keep the earth in place. Thanks to cover cropping and other conservation techniques—planting in contour strips, clearing old gullies of brush and trees, and reshaping ditches into gentle swales—water that runs off Servais’s fields will take little else with it.
For decades, Driftless area farmers have accomplished such erosion-control measures with help from the National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS). Through its Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), NRCS funds part or all of landowner projects aimed at improving soil, air, and water quality.
Because of its rolling topography, an emphasis on agriculture, and a long tradition of conservation, Vernon County uses more EQIP money than any other county in Wisconsin. Still, demand has exceeded funding levels.
So last fall the NRCS, as part of its Mississippi River Basin Initiative (MRBI), issued a supplemental $5.3 million for conservation practices over three years in selected Driftless area sub-watersheds: West Fork Kickapoo, Tainter Creek, Trout Creek-Kickapoo River, Caswell Hollow-Kickapoo River, Halls Branch, Goose Creek-Kickapoo River, Otter Creek, Plum Run-Kickapoo River, Weister Creek, and Knapp Creek-West Fork Kickapoo River. “What’s unique about the MRBI grant,” said Sam Skemp, NRCS District Conservationist for Vernon County, is its direct focus on surface water quality.”
Everything we eat—fruit, vegetable, grain, meat, or dairy—includes the potential for erosion and runoff in its production. Cultivating row crops churns the soil. Cows trample frequently used paths. Here in the Driftless area, managing these risks is crucial. Steep hills increase the chances that topsoil will wash away with the rain. Farming methods dating back to the late 1800s left many streambanks fragile and apt to collapse. An unstable streambank can release 300 tons, or about 30 dump trucks full, of soil per mile into the water every year. That soil carries nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, plus any herbicides and pesticides that were applied to the field. It threatens aquatic life and human health throughout the Kickapoo, Wisconsin, and Mississippi River systems, all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Erosion also robs farmers of their most precious resource.
“The topsoil is probably my biggest asset on the farm. I need to do everything I can to maintain it,” Travis Klinkner, a dairy farmer who lives west of Viroqua, said. Two days after purchasing his farm he visited the NRCS office. Specialists there helped him plan the framework for new pastures and establish rotational grazing for his cows. Next he wants to put in field roads and shore up waterways and ditches on his property. He wants to be an example to others, to show how easy it is. “I’ve been super pleased with the NRCS agents. Every farmer should talk to them.”
“Agriculture in the Driftless continues to evolve and change over time,” Skemp noted. “These changes bring about new challenges for maintaining sustainable land use. The many practices available in MRBI will allow producers to address some of these new and existing issues.”
The $5.3 million allocation can fund dozens of types of projects, including not only cover crops, rotational grazing, and streambank restoration, but also grade stabilization structures (dams), pollinator habitat plantings, and manure storage systems. Danika Wehling, a dairy farmer in rural Westby, recently used EQIP money to transform her farm. She hired engineers to assess the best placement of a new barn. She had a wastewater storage tank installed and a manure storage facility constructed. She put in a grooved walkway so her cows could walk from barn to milking parlor without degrading the slope.
Vegetable farmers benefit from EQIP programs, too. At Harmony Valley Farm in rural Viroqua, Richard DeWilde has planted cover crops and hedgerows of highbush cranberry and pussy willow that attract pollinators early in the season. He also used a grant to build gravel service roads. “Every time it rains, we love our roads,” he said. “A lot are close to waterways, and [when they were dirt roads], mud would wash into the trout stream. The new roads stop water coming off the field.”
But how effectively do EQIP practices protect waterways? According to the USDA, conservation work on cropland in the Mississippi River Basin has reduced the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus flowing to the Gulf of Mexico by 18 and 20 percent, respectively (compared to runoff amounts anticipated without such measures). Still, the agency admits that there’s room for improvement. Nutrients and sediment could be further reduced if more landowners took advantage of EQIP programs.
As the new grant money is applied, Vernon and Crawford County streams will be monitored for changes. Historical water sampling data collected by Valley Stewardship Network’s citizen scientists will provide baselines for comparison. Yet as Jeff Hastings, Project Manager for Trout Unlimited’s Driftless Area Restoration Effort, pointed out, a stream is often polluted during a single runoff event. And that event might not coincide with a scheduled water test. Instead, he said, “Trout are great indicators of water quality.” In the 1950s, one of the worst eras for stream health, state wildlife officials thought the region’s trout streams would never maintain healthy trout populations without restocking. But thanks to conservation efforts starting in the 1980s, streams that used to be considered degraded now support self-sustaining trout populations.
If you own land in one of the eligible sub-watersheds, consider taking advantage of MRBI funding to promote healthy streams in the Driftless area. The deadline for the next round of grants is September 2. To apply, contact the NRCS office in Vernon County (608) 637-2183, or Crawford County (608) 326-7179.
Tamara Dean is a writer and rural landowner in Viola. She’s using an EQIP grant to convert an old hayfield into pollinator habitat. More of her work can be found online at: www.tamaradean.media