Wisconsin Water Agenda: supporting farmers who are doing agriculture differently in Wisconsin

Feb 1, 2022 | Agriculture, Clear Water Farms, Wisconsin Water Agenda

This week River Alliance of Wisconsin shared a new video about the Wisconsin Water Agenda that we hope will help Wisconsinites of all ages learn about the value of Wisconsin’s rivers.

Wisconsin Water Agenda – Farming from River Alliance of Wisconsin on Vimeo.

The water that we drink, play in, and rely on to support Wisconsin’s natural heritage is responsive to the way we use it. Agriculture is an important part of this heritage as well. A lot has changed in the way farmers operate over the last century, as a smaller number of large corporate farms have steadily replaced many smaller more sustainable family farms.

Farmers respond to the demands their customers make. Since most of these customers are large corporations, their demands are simple: “produce as much as possible, as cheaply as possible.” The result is cheap food but lots of chemical inputs and a mandate to pass pollution downstream.

It took a long time to get into this situation – one in which 10-30 percent of the state’s wells are so contaminated with nitrates that the water is not safe to drink. It will take time and effort to get out of it. Our hope is to inspire people to think about a better system and how to get there rather than simply to point out that we’ve got a problem.

We believe it’s possible for Wisconsin’s farms to become an engine for environmental restoration. No one in the state is closer to the land and water on a daily basis than farmers. If we can work together to support the farmers who are doing things differently and speak up about the need for a new system, it would be a big step toward a better future.

While problems in our agricultural system have been long in the making, there’s a lot we can do to reverse them.

Farmers who are taking the lead on conservation deserve our support. The existing agricultural production system makes it very difficult to make a profit without cutting costs. Water protection is, sadly, among the first things to go. But many farmers have made a different choice—placing environmental health at the center of their businesses. Many do it largely because they care about it, and they deserve our support and an effort to understand what’s different about what they do and the difficult economic challenges it creates. If you participate in a lake or river group, reach out to nearby farmer-led watershed groups to see if you can collaborate or at least make a personal connection.

The corporate agriculture industry, manufacturing lobbyists, and too often our own state legislature, do not want to invest in the health of our environment or the safety of the public. Farmers respond to consumer demand. But the “consumer” for many farmers is corporate agriculture commodity buyers and food companies that have more interest in keeping the prices farmers get for their products low than the health of local water systems. We have the ability to pressure these companies to do better and let our legislators know our support for them is contingent on real action to protect our water.

Healthy water will require big change and sustained effort, so we have to build a social ethos that supports it through challenges. The reality is that we cannot achieve our public and environmental health goals by simply chipping at the edges of the problem with patchy adoption of marginally better field practices. If we want a farm economy that measures itself partly by how much it improves the environment, then this needs to become a coordinated movement. In the absence of serious effort by our state government or the corporate ag sector, we need to create truly representative watershed groups—ones that include farmers, paddlers, anglers, and anyone who drinks water. We need to build change from the ground up.

These are complicated problems that we’re not going to solve in a day. But throwing our hands up while the water becomes undrinkable is not an option. Wisconsin is a state with a storied legacy of protecting its natural environment. We can be leaders here again, if we want to be.

The Wisconsin Water Agenda is a guide for how to get there. River Alliance of Wisconsin is creating a roadmap for coordinated watershed-scale change. With the help of partners and experts in environmental science and justice work, the Agenda can be used to help the state achieve human and ecological health goals through comprehensive, watershed-wide, management decisions. Our Clear Water Farms program is working directly with the farmers who are standing up for clean water and healthy soil to support their efforts and elevate their voices.

Learn more about the Wisconsin Water Agenda and what you can do to help.

– Mike Tiboris, Clear Water Farms Director