Rock County Farmers Collaborate to Reduce Runoff and Soil Erosion

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Willie Hughes said every farmer wants to be a good steward of the land and natural resources.

But, as he recently told Wisconsin Public Radio’s “The Morning Show,” “The truth is that our understanding of what good stewardship is is rapidly changing…It no longer stops at our fence like maybe that was the case before.”

A sixth generation farmer, Hughes and his family farm more than 5,000 acres in Rock County, where they grow corn and other crops. Much of the maize is used to produce Blue Farm Potato Chips.

To help improve farmer land stewardship for future generations, Hughes has partnered with other Rock County farmers to protect water and soil resources.

This year the band – called Farmers on the Rock – got a Grant of $33,600 from the State Department of Agriculture, Commerce, and Consumer Protection to fund certain conservation measures.

A pilot project aims to reduce water pollution and promote crop growth by adjusting the use of fertilizers. Hughes said farmers traditionally apply nitrogen fertilizers in the fall. But in years of heavy rains, much of this fertilizer is washed away, polluting groundwater, streams and lakes. Using new computer modeling of weather and soil conditions, Farmers on the Rock wants to help farmers better choose when they apply fertilizer so it’s less likely to blow off.

“We can be much more specific,” Hughes said.

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Soon, Farmers on the Rock will launch another initiative to encourage the cultivation of cover crops in the fall. Clover, barley, rye and other cover crops can have great benefits for farmers and the watershed.

“A big reason the cover crop is important is because it holds the soil in place. It also helps recycle nutrients or fix nitrogen (in the soil),” Hughes said.

Convincing farmers to plant cover crops is difficult because cover crops are usually not harvested.

“So it’s not a source of income,” Hughes said in a follow-up conversation with WPR. Farmers on the Rock hopes to encourage enough farmers to plant 2,000 acres of cover crops this fall. The state grant will pay $15 for each acre of cover crop, about half the cost of planting.

The state grant also helps pay for well testing in the Rock River watershed. At least 30% of private wells in the area have high levels of nitrates, according to the group.

Testing is free and available to Rock County well owners. for more information contact Farmers on the Rock Where Rock County Public Health. The funding has paid for around 100 tests and there is enough left over to pay for another 100 tests. Test results are kept confidential.

“People sometimes don’t want to test their well because they’re worried, ‘Oh oh, am I going to get in trouble?'” Hughes said. “People don’t want to be singled out.”

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