Wisconsin Farm Network Supports Sustainable Agriculture Practices, Helping to Reduce Runoff, Protect Groundwater, Lake Michigan

The Door-Kewaunee Watershed Demonstration Farm Network supports four farms throughout their adoption of farm conservation practices. 

Description

With picturesque outcroppings of the Niagara Escarpment and karst formations, Door Peninsula in northeastern Wisconsin is a fantastic vantage point from which to view Lake Michigan. 

But it’s the same geology behind those beautiful rock faces—and accompanying shallow soil—that make the Door-Kewaunee Watershed susceptible to groundwater contamination as well as runoff pollution. In 22% of Door County, soil is less than 18 inches deep; in 17% of the county, it’s only 18-36 inches deep.

“Top soil is really precious,” says Jacob Brey of Brey Cycle Farm in Sturgeon Bay. “We can’t afford to lose any more, because it’s very limited to begin with.” 

Thanks to funding from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative—as well as from the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service; Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection; and Peninsula Pride Farms—the Door-Kewaunee Watershed Demonstration Farm Network is supporting sustainable methods of farming to reduce runoff pollution into Lake Michigan and Green Bay, improve groundwater and surface water quality, and model those practices for other local farms. Founded in 2017, the network includes Augustian Farms LLC, Brey Cycle Farm LLC, Deer Run Dairy LLC, and Kinnard Farms. 

The network supports practices to improve soil quality and reduce soil erosion, including use of cover crops, low-disturbance manure injection, reduced tillage, no-till planting, and more. “I’m a really strong believer that if we improve soil quality, water quality is going to follow. They go hand in hand,” said Barry Bubolz, NRCS area Great Lakes Restoration Initiative coordinator.

Jacob and Tony Brey, fourth-generation farmers, purchased Brey Cycle Farm from their parents in 2016 and joined the farm network the following year. The Breys run their dairy farm and raise angus beef cattle and young heifers. The techniques they’ve adopted through their membership in the network—cover crops, no-tilling, and low-disturbance manure injection—have allowed the Breys to keep more nutrients on their fields, preventing excess manure and fertilizer from running into local waters, where they can contribute to toxic algal blooms. Cover crops are being used to feed their animals, too. “All of these things are management strategies that we weren’t even using five or six years ago,” Jacob said. The result: A farm whose costs are declining due to less fuel and commercial fertilizer and whose yields are increasing – up to 30 percent on some of the land on which they’ve adopted farm conservation practices.

Bubolz testified to the collaborative power of the network. “A very successful approach is when other farmers can see another farmer trying something and picking their brain on, ‘Hey, that worked for them, I want to give them a try.’ These four farms were looking to be leaders in the watershed and for other folks to be able to ask them questions, follow their leads, take aspects of what they’re doing and make it work on their farms,” he said.  

The farms in the network have hosted field days and tours, during which they discuss their successes and lessons learned with other farmers. Jacob credits the network’s sense of community as one of its biggest successes. “It’s opened up the dialogue between farmers. The demo farms are a very inviting group. We all have the same goal in mind. … We want a healthier environment and we want clean water and we want our businesses—which just happen to be agriculture—to thrive,” he said. “And we feel like we can have that all.” 

 

Resource Challenges Addressed

  • Agricultural runoff
  • Soil health
  • Soil erosion
  • Water quality

A FAMILY AFFAIR

Fourth-generation farmers Jacob and Tony Brey (on the far left and right) with their families. The family has adopted conservation practices to protect soil health and reduce runoff pollution, ultimately helping to protect Lake Michigan. Photo credit: Brey Cycle Farm

Cover crops are one method employed by Brey Cycle Farm, above, and others in the Door-Kewaunee Watershed Demonstration Farm Network, to improve soil and water quality. Photo credit: Brey Cycle Farm

An earthworm squirms in a shovel-full of soil – an indicator of healthy, productive soil resulting from sustainable farming practices. Photo credit: Brey Cycle Farm

Results and Accomplishments

While the network is too young to see quantitative results on changes in runoff, farmers have anecdotally reported better soil structure, better infiltration, less soil compaction, better water-holding capacity, and less runoff from their fields. Importantly, the network has helped elevate soil health and water quality as important factors in the decision-making process for farms in the watershed.