A Bold Agenda for Agricultural Water Stewardship in Wisconsin

Nov 14, 2019 | Agriculture, Clear Water Farms

If you had any question whether conservation practices like cover crops can rapidly transform the agricultural landscape, think about this—we moved the Miltrim Farms award ceremony into their field because it was the driest spot.

Everyone had come to Athens, WI in Marathon County to watch River Alliance announce that Miltrim is the first farm in North America to achieve the Alliance for Water Stewardship (AWS) International certification as part of our Clear Water Farms program. Farmers, conservation staff, business owners and state legislators stepped through the sloppy mud at the field edge and onto the firm ground provided by cover crops. (The root systems of cover crops hold the soil in place preventing a very wet season from washing the field away. Cover crops capture nutrients so they do not wash off into surface streams or infiltrate into the groundwater, causing environmental damage and public health threats.)

Cover crops and no-till practices are only a few of the practices that Miltrim adopted as they prepared to become AWS certified. Miltrim made changes to the way water moved through their barns and how many times it is re-used. Marginal land was taken out of production and returned to native planting and pollinator habitat. But perhaps most importantly, the certification process required a full and detailed accounting of the ways in which a farm consumes, disposes of, and influences the water resources it shares with the community around it.

Building this plan—and setting aggressive targets for improvement with guidance from River Alliance, AWS, and the surrounding community—is a revelatory experience for a farm. Certification makes this plan explicit and transparent, and provides a metric for evaluating progress. Achieving the rigorous AWS certifications also requires a third-party audit, which Miltrim Farms successfully completed in the fall of 2019.

There is still a lot of work to do. We’re proud to have partnered with Miltrim Farms to do something really new and innovative, but we need agricultural water stewardship to become the norm. It can’t end with Miltrim; more farms will need to take part in the Clear Water Farms program to see changes at the watershed level.

Wisconsin’s agricultural water quality problems are well understood. The Department of Natural Resources’ work on the Wisconsin River shows, for instance, that the Big Eau Pleine watershed (where Miltrim Farms is located) needs to reduce phosphorus loads by more than 80 percent to stay within federal guidelines. Farmers and other Wisconsinites recently attended the Speaker’s Water Quality Task Force public hearings to say that is past time to put serious resources into managing agricultural water pollution.

The Clear Water Farms program, innovated by River Alliance and AWS, guides farms through the process of assessing their water stewardship goals and putting a plan into place for meeting them. The program helps farms set targets that are more stringent than state and federal guidelines. There are also scheduled check-ups to ensure targets are being met. Most importantly, the Clear Water Farms program allows farms to take control of their water management and take credit for achieving good stewardship.

Back on the road, after leaving the field where we held the Miltrim award event, we knocked the mud off our boots and headed toward the barns. We recognize that there’s a long path to make Clear Water Farms the baseline for agricultural water stewardship, but Miltrim Farms has helped to pave the way for the next farms to follow in their footsteps. 

Learn More

Interested in learning more about the Clear Water Farms program?
Contact Michael Tiboris, Clear Water Farms Director at
608-257-2424 x125 or email Michael.