December 19, 2016|By Angie Doucette

It was a typical late March day in Wisconsin. The air was crisp, the ground frozen solid, and winds off Lake Michigan swept through the leafless trees. Inside a meeting room at a dairy farm in Port Washington, farmers gathered around Andy Holschbach, Director of Ozaukee County Land & Water Management Department, and me as we waited for the clock to strike noon. You could feel their restlessness in the air—the desire to get in the field, run tractors, prepare for the coming crop season—as winter continued uninterrupted outside the windows. Andy and I hoped that when we left that day, the tightknit group of farmers in the room would join us in promoting conservation for healthy soils and clean water.

This was the first time in thirty years that an organized group of farmers in this region had gathered to address water and soil conservation issues that affect their farms’ bottom-line. These issues—like nutrient loss through surface runoff and increased sediment and soil leaving the fields—may not only impact a farmer’s profit by decreasing the health of their crop and their soil, but can also have negative implications for the Milwaukee River and Lake Michigan. The Milwaukee River Watershed is home to approximately 1.3 million people, and is a major tributary to Lake Michigan. It is plagued with water quality degradation due in part to high levels of phosphorus, sediment, and bacteria from stormwater runoff.

Doucette tractorPhoto by Ivan LaBianca.

For two hours, the six farmers in the room shouted out ideas and innovative approaches as fast as I could write them, such as cover crop incentives, tillage demonstration field days, long-term demonstration farms, cover crop tests plots, and winter workshops to share successes and lessons learned. By the end of that first meeting, full of excitement and intrigue for the future, the group decided we needed a name. Jim Melichar of Melichar Broad Acres declared, “How about Milwaukee River Watershed Clean Farm Families?” And so, the council was born.

Doucette 2Farmers at the first CFF Meeting at Melichar Broad Acres, Port Washington, Wisconsin. From left: Bob Roden, Mike Paulus, Joe Roden, Ken Falk, Jim Melichar, Dave Brunquell. Not pictured: Neal Maciejewski. Photo by Angie Doucette.

The newly formed Milwaukee River Watershed Clean Farm Families (CFF) is now a coalition of local farmers who are dedicated to improving soil health and water quality in the region by working with county land and water conservationists, agribusinesses, local land trusts, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD), and USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) to promote conservation practices and conservation easements in the agriculture sector. RCPP was created in the U.S. Congress-passed Farm Bill of 2014 and has been annually funded by the U.S. Congress, which includes the delegation representing this project: U.S. Senators Ron Johnson and Tammy Baldwin and U.S. Representatives Jim Sensenbrenner and Glenn Grothman.

Doucette 3CFF members planting the 5-Acre Cover Crop Test Plot. Photo by Andy Holschbach.

CFF member Neal Maciejewski expressed, “We have changed; even though tractors still drive through the fields, and the crops still grow, we are adjusting. Farming is more technical [today] than most people realize.” CFF believes peer-to-peer conversation and outreach to the public, including local neighbors and urban residents that are often disconnected to the everyday workings of a farm, are two important components to advancing the intersection between farming and land stewardship. The more knowledgeable people are about the farming community, the easier it is for partners to come to the table and work together to achieve clean water. “It is for our self-preservation,” Jim Melichar observed. “It is a lot easier to teach ‘em than it is to fight ‘em.”

And at the “Managing Nutrients and Cover Crops for Healthy Soils” field day in October 2016, CFF took the opportunity to do exactly that—to teach, engage, and share lessons learned over the 7 months together as a council with area farmers, agribusiness and conservation partners, and curious neighbors. This field day was important because it provided an opportunity for farmers to come together to share details of on-farm research and demonstration and learn from each other in a spirit of openness and curiosity. CFF organized and hosted the field day because they are the experts on their farming systems, decisions, challenges, and solutions. The field day also provided the opportunity for academia and in-field farmer experience to come together and share ideas.

Doucette 4Dr. Matt Ruark, Associate Professor in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Soil Science Department, engaged the room in conversation about managing nutrients with cover crops at CFF’s first field day, October 26, 2016.

The field day was filled with conversation, NRCS soil health demonstrations, implement and machinery presentations, farmer and partner networking, and of course, burgers and brats—as any good Wisconsin event should have. Farmers asked questions and shared personal experiences about how varying soil types found along Lake Michigan, crop rotations, cover crop seed mixes, fall planting time and method, and treatment in the spring all impact nutrients coming off the fields and nutrients retained in the soil.

The CFF field day successfully brought together nearly 80 farmers, conservationists, agribusiness partners, and community members. One important outcome was the connections made between farmers and watershed partners (including NRCS, MMSD, and county land and water staff), as well as connections to resources such as incentive programs and technical assistance that are available for on-farm conservation practices. For example, farmers were made aware that $20,000 is available for cover crop cost share through the CFF Cover Crop Incentive Program. In the first few months of the program, CFF incentivized more than 250 acres of cover crops in the Milwaukee River Watershed. To continue to support farmers in the area, CFF received an additional $40,000 for 2017 through the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection (DATCP) grant program, and the Fund for Lake Michigan matched dollars to provide additional cost share opportunities. Additionally, cost share funds will be available in 2017 for the development and implementation of nutrient management plans, conservation tillage practices, and the use of low-disturbance manure injection. Nutrient management plans improve water quality and make economic sense by helping farmers understand their farm’s needs and apply the correct amount of nutrients at appropriate times of the year. Conservation tillage and low-disturbance manure injection are valuable techniques because they provide minimal soil disturbance while sustaining porous, healthy soil and reducing sediment and nutrient runoff.

Doucette 5A presentation at CFF’s Field Day about implementation included this tool that can be used to apply cover crops. Photo by Angie Doucette.

Prior to having the opportunity to work alongside such motivating and inspiring individuals, I assumed that combining government and conservation non-profit organizations with the rural agriculture community in Southeast Wisconsin would be much like mixing vinegar and oil, but I learned quickly that there is a natural synergy between the worlds. This experience has provided the opportunity for me to learn firsthand about the high degree of resiliency and innovation of the agricultural community. Members of CFF, their families, crop consultants and co-operative partners in the field are motivated and energized to form relationships, to bring their expertise to the table, and to work together to achieve healthy soil and clean water.


The Milwaukee River Watershed Clean Farm Families is part of a larger watershed-wide effort, the Milwaukee River Watershed Conservation Partnership (MRWCP). The MRWCP is a five-year initiative to implement cost effective conservation solutions that will improve water quality and soil quality along the impaired Milwaukee River corridor. MRWCP is a diverse coalition of over 20 partners in the watershed, including agricultural producers, agri-businesses, land trusts, county conservation districts, WDNR, local non-profits, municipalities, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD), NRCS, and DATCP. The MRWCP is made possible by a $1.5 million award as part of NRCS’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). The RCPP award is leveraged by $3,612,480 in partner contributed resources.