The Farmer-Led Initiative
University of Wisconsin--Stout
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Within the past two years, the counties of Dunn, Pierce, Polk, and St. Croix have created farmer-councils with the aim of improving soil health and water quality within the agricultural community. The ultimate goal is to facilitate better farming practices upstream that will help clean up pollution in lakes Menomin and Tainter. The LAKES REU researched the farmer-led initiative to better understand what it is and how it works. The findings are as follows: Prior to the farmer-led councils, the county had little power to enforce environmental regulations, especially when many desirable farming practices are completely voluntary. The farmer-led councils take a different approach to enforcement, choosing instead to create a sense of community between farmers and provide education and resources. Using private money from the McKnight Foundation, the farmers decide which incentives to use to encourage environmentally friendly farming practices. The councils also work to rebuild trust between the farming community and the county. Some farmers are weary of working with government officials, put off by previous experiences with regulation. Interestingly, the farmer-led councils seem to attract farmers who generally dislike government interference. These farmers hope that by taking a proactive approach, they can potentially stave off more regulation. Many people are excited by the potential of the farmer-led initiative, yet a few barriers exist that could slow progress. The long-term sustainability of funding is one concern. One of the largest challenges to finding incentive money is the need for funding that is free from “strings attached.” The farmer-led councils must have flexible funding available for them to use as they see fit. The county departments involved in creating the farmer-led councils also face financial constraints. Time is money, and it takes a lot of time to build relationships between the farmers within each council and between the council and the county. Currently, each county has dedicated one employee to work with the councils part-time on the farmer-led initiative. In order for the farmer-led initiative to expand, however, more paid staff time may be necessary in the future. The farmer-led initiative shows a lot of promise for improving soil health and water-quality within the region. It is important to note that the farmer-led initiative is a long-term project that has only just begun. It will take more time to see results. The LAKES REU plans to continue monitoring the initiative over the next two years to see how it progresses.
Environmental Studies at Central College