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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Advocates call for amping up conservation programs as Congress crafts Farm Bill

Seven Seeds Farm in Iowa County
Susan Bence
Seven Seeds Farm in Iowa County.

The US Farm Bill is a gigantic legislation suite driving the country’s agricultural and food policy. Drafted every five years, the current bill is due to expire in just over a week. With its 64,000 farms, Wisconsin stands to be impacted by the elements Congress is considering, including Seven Seeds Farm. It’s been in Michael Dolan’s family for over 150 years.

Dolan looks out at his hogs contentedly feasting on a portion of farm field. A cluster of Murray Greys – beef cattle – are off in the distance.

“We’re farrowing to finishing around 150 hogs a year. We’re calving to finishing around 60 to 70 head of beef a year,” he says.

Michael Dolan center
courtesy American Farmland Trust
Michael Dolan center and his wife at a recent event at their family farm.

“We” is Dolan, his wife, brother, and parents.

Dolan remembers a dramatically different landscape. “When I grew up, this was a corn and bean and hay rotation — so it was mono-cropped, planted every year and harvested every year. My grandma rented out the farm after she stopped dairy farming and before my parents bought the farm,” he says.

After he finished college in 2015, Dolan joined in and began transitioning the farm to what he calls a perennial system in which his animals work for him, not the other way around.

“They need to spread their own manure. They need to harvest their own feed. All we do is go out there with poly wire, and we set up a fence, and they’re fed for the day. And we’re sequestering more carbon with the grazing,” he says.

Dolan considers his approach a model for food production that’s healthy for the environment and people. Of course, there’s lots of work involved. Fields need to be planted rotationally. Dolan is also incorporating trees on the landscape. “We did 12,000 fruit and nut trees on the home farm here, on 70 acres,” Dolan says.

The family owns 200 acres and rents an additional 500 acres.

“Ultimately, I want to have mainly contiguous land because in a grazing system, it works best, and you’re not trucking cattle. Maybe grazing some cover crops or crop residue, just overall integration,” he says.

Dolan says a program folded into the Farm Bill is helping to inch him closer to that goal.

Sara Walling with Clean Wisconsin
courtesy of Jason Walling
Sara Walling with Clean Wisconsin

“We did sign an NRCS contract on the 65 acres across the road here,” Dolan says. That stands for the Natural Resources Conservation Service. It resides within the US Department of Agriculture. Dolan qualified for its flagship conservation program, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program – EQIP. It gives farmers one-on-one technical support along with funding to fold environmental practices – water conservation and improved soil health – into their operations.

“It is by far the biggest program that comes through the USDA to support agricultural conservation,” says Sara Walling. She’s water and agriculture program director for Clean Wisconsin, an environmental nonprofit.

Walling says her organization is among those advocating for more Farm Bill funding for EQIP. Walling also wants the program to prioritize farmers who are focused on reducing their impacts to the land and water around them.

“You’d be able to look at an application for covering my entire farm with cover crops, for instance, versus somebody’s application to install a new manure storage lagoon. And the environmental benefits of the cover crops is going to be a lot stronger and longer lasting than the manure storage option in particular because that’s really not a water quality practice at all,” Walling says.

Chuck Anderas with Michael Fields Agricultural Institute
Susan Bence
Chuck Anderas with Michael Fields Agricultural Institute

Clean Wisconsin and a chorus of environmental groups also want to modernize crop insurance. It dates back to the 1930s and serves as a financial safety net for farmers growing commodity crops.

“I would like to see more incentives built into our crop insurance and indemnity payment processes that allow for conservation practices and enhancements to be automatically considered “quote” good farming practices,” Walling says.

Chuck Anderas says he wants lawmakers to consider a program launched in Minnesota focused on another pressing problem making way for the next generation of farmers. Anderas works with Wisconsin-based Michael Fields Agricultural Institute.

“It provides $18,000 grants to beginning farmers that meet certain criteria. So it’s a direct investment that can ho to straight to people that can help to alleviate the incredible competition there is for land, not only from big farmers in the area but you’re also competing with venture capital firms as part of people’s investment portfolios,” Anderas says.

Anderas thinks programs aimed at buoying sustainable farming could gain bipartisan support, especially after an encouraging conversation he says he had with Republican Congressman Tom Tiffany.

“He said I hate subsidies, but we have to do something about this. Most conservative politicians represent rural areas and rural areas are being decimated by the changes in agriculture over the last couple of generations. And so, I’m very hopeful that this could be a bipartisan issue that there could be a lot of unity around trying to solve this because farming touches everyone," Anderas says.

He’s hoping more people make the connection and reach out to their federal lawmakers about the new Farm Bill.


Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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