Two reasons to be optimistic about the future of agriculture in Wisconsin

Jan 25, 2022 | Agriculture, Clear Water Farms




Watch River Alliance Clear Water Farms Director Mike Tiboris share his remarks at the UW-Madison Renk Agribusiness Institute 2022 Agricultural Outlook Forum on Tuesday, January 25, 2022.


It’s been a somewhat disheartening couple of years on the water quality front in Wisconsin.

What started in 2019 as a statewide push for the “Year of Clean Drinking Water” has yielded very little by way of actual regulatory or policy change. The agriculture-focused bills from the House Speaker’s Water Quality Task Force were scuttled by COVID. The proposed expansion to the Nitrate in Groundwater Standards (NR 151) fizzled in the face of opposition from the agriculture and manufacturing lobby. The legislature has nothing of consequence to show for all their promises.

And yet, I’m optimistic for two, main reasons.

The first is that we’ve seen a serious effort by local farmer-led watershed groups to organize around protecting water quality.

I have seen this first hand through River Alliance’s Clear Water Farms Program, which has built strong relationships with key farmer groups. These producer groups are functionally very similar to the lake and river associations that River Alliance has long supported. And they are arguably among the most effective engines for change.

Why? Because they are made up of committed local leaders who are passionate about protecting the environment in the place where they live. While the legislature has failed to provide us with basic protections in the form of meaningful water quality standards and funding, the farmers in these groups are forging ahead toward these goals anyway.

I am encouraged by what’s happening in places like Marathon County, where the Eau Pleine Partnership for Integrated Conservation is working with a truly diverse cross-section of farmers to put water protection at the center of their regional farm economy and identity. I’m inspired by the farmers of the Sauk Soil and Water Improvement Group, who are thinking really big about how to enlist everyone living in their watershed in supporting farms that put water quality first.

River Alliance has begun to support the unique goals of these groups in the same way that we do with other lake and river groups, and businesses that advocate for the clean water and outdoors recreation that are essential to Wisconsin’s economy. The Clear Water Farms program identifies the leaders in these groups, and is working to expand their reach, strengthen their capacity, and share resources to make them more effective advocates for their local water issues. We are stronger together.

The other reason I’m optimistic is that there is a debate taking shape about how farming in Wisconsin can put environmental sustainability at its center.

There are plenty of folks who are skeptical about this and are happy so slow-walk progress, but there’s also a growing consensus that chipping away at the edges of the problem is not going to get us where we need to go.

This opens the door for a discussion of what transformational change in our food system would need to be like in order to achieve our environmental and public health goals. Currently, many farmers treat productivity (not even profit) as a measure of whether they’re “good farmers.” A recurring topic of discussion among the producer-led groups is how to change this notion so that farmers start to measure their success by the health of their land and their contribution to the health of their communities. We should want to make this the primary value in agriculture, and support it with the same financial, subsidy, and regulatory tools that we’ve used to prop up the dominant models of production that have much worse environmental outcomes. As consumers we should demand it of the companies that buy farmers’ products and vote with our purchasing power.

We need a better system. That much is clear.

But in the meantime, there’s a lot we can do with our existing tools. We must help the increasing number of people who can’t drink their water right now. Unsafe drinking water is unacceptable in a place with our abundant natural resources. We must also do the best we can within the existing system. This means implementing clear regulatory standards for nutrients, enforcing existing laws, fully funding conservation staff and incentive programs, and implementing monitoring so that we know how we’re doing. All of these things are possible with commitment.

No one is entitled to pollute our water, and arguing that it’s necessary in order for a business to remain profitable has never been compelling. Wisconsinites (whether they’re farmers or not) want family farms to become an engine for the preservation of our state’s natural heritage.

Change is slow and hard won, but I am confident that we can have both thriving family farms and a healthier environment.

– Mike Tiboris, Clear Water Farms Director