5 Questions to Ask Your Local Farmer About Water

Jun 17, 2020 | Agriculture, Clear Water Farms

by Michael Tiboris, Clear Water Farms Director

Many of us still know very little about how our food is produced. Agriculture is a major source of water contamination in Wisconsin. If we want to support conservation of land and water, we need to learn more about what it takes to produce the food we eat.

Processors, corporations, and their marketing departments often stand between consumer and farmers. This can make it difficult to hold farms accountable for their environmental stewardship.

The pandemic has quickly short-circuited a portion of the food system. While some high-production industrial farms have had to dump milk and produce, there has also been a huge spike in demand for food from farms that sell directly to consumers.

This is a unique opportunity for us to learn how our food is produced. And—this is an ideal time to communicate with farmers that we care deeply about how they treat the soil and water.

But, smaller farms are not guaranteed to be environmentally friendly. Many smaller farms use the same chemical and fertilizer inputs as larger farms. They’re also not as heavily and legally regulated as the larger farms. There’s a chance they control their pollution even less well.

So, what is a conscientious consumer to do?

Get to Know Your Farmer

The first step is to get to know your local farmers. If you buy directly from a farm or purchase a CSA delivery, contact the farm and ask some questions. Visit the farm if you can do it safely. Farmers are often eager to educate, and their farms are frequently both a labor of love and a family legacy.

Start the conversation by asking them about their farm and how they got into the business.

Question to Ask About Water Use

Here are some water-specific questions you can ask to spark conversation and learn how a farm manages water.

  1. Where does your water come from and where does it go to after you use it? 
    – A lot of farms rely on wells, which draw on groundwater. Despite the fact that we live in a wet place generally, there are lots of places in the state where groundwater is limited. Does your farmer have a good sense of where the wastewater from their farm ends up, and who polluted water would affect downstream?
  2. Are there important water areas nearby—like wetlands and rivers? How does your farm affect them?- Even if they aren’t bordering the farm, water moving off fields collects in rivers and groundwater and can degrade wetlands and rivers.
    – You can find out more about the condition of lakes and rivers in the state through the DNR website.
  3. What do you do with animal waste? When do you spread manure on fields?
    – Manure is an important planting nutrient, but it has to be managed properly. It shouldn’t be spread on fields at all in the winter, and only in the fall and early spring when conditions are right.
    – Are they aware of the state’s standards for managing runoff NR 151 and ATCP 50
  4. Do you do anything to prevent nutrients and chemicals from running off fields or seeping into groundwater?
    – When plant nutrients (commercial fertilizer and manure) or chemicals (herbicides and pesticides) are applied to fields, they can be washed into waterways by rain or enter the atmosphere or groundwater when plants don’t consume them. The resulting pollution is an environmental and public health hazard.
    – The main ways farmers control this are by (1) reducing application of these inputs; (2) planting cover crops to consume extra nutrients and build soil structure to prevent runoff; (3) reducing tillage to not disturb the soil as much which leads to erosion and loss of carbon and nutrients to the atmosphere, and (4) creating off field areas to block runoff  from entering waterways, such as constructed wetlands or prairie planting “buffer” strips.
    – Does your farmer do any of the things listed above? What’s preventing them if not?
  5. Do you have any plans to reduce water usage in the way you produce your products?
    – Hearing from consumers is a major motivator for farmers. As consumers we can make it clear that we think of environmental stewardship as a part of why we intend to purchase from the farm.
    – River Alliance’s Clear Water Farms program might be a great resource for some farms that are ready to prove that they are on a path to comprehensive water stewardship planning through the Alliance for Water Stewardship International Certification.

If consumers decide from whom to buy on the basis of environmental impact, corporations may also take notice and demand it from their own farmers.

Large farms and long supply chains aren’t going to vanish with the pandemic. If anything, they’ll be intensified.

So, it is especially powerful for us to send a signal right now that water protection is a major factor in consumer behavior. If you know of a local farmer who is a great steward of their land and water, please let us know!