Healthy soil and well-managed precipitation are the basics all farmers and ranchers depend on to grow food and forage crops. Food is the most obvious connection between American’s engaged in its production and the urban and suburbanites who consume it. But there is a less obvious, and equally important, connection between these groups. Fresh water. Water is the single most important constraint on a thirsty planet, and is as much a product of agricultural land as the food we consume.
The quantity and quality of our fresh water streams, lakes and underground aquifers are directly impacted by farmers and ranchers. That is why Sand County Foundation works intensively at the intersection of upstream farmers and ranchers and downstream water users. We demonstrate specific management practices that protect soil and water, utilize it more efficiently, and maximize the environmental benefits and productive capacity of agricultural systems. Sand County Foundation is a trusted partner to farmers and ranchers, which allows us access to private farmland to test, develop, demonstrate, monitor and promote new management tools.
Sand County Foundation is collaborating with farmers in southern Wisconsin to install strips of diverse native perennial vegetation within row crop fields. These prairie filter strips can improve water quality by capturing sediment and nutrients in water that runs off of fields, while also providing habitat for pollinators and grassland birds.
Installing drainage tile on farms allows farmers to manage the seasonal draining of water from agricultural land. This provides insurance against drought, and reduces the amount of nitrogen entering rivers and streams. Sand County Foundation is working with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service to promote the installation of these structures.
The same gypsum used to make wall board may play a role in water quality improvement. Sand County Foundation is evaluating gypsum extracted from the exhaust of electric power plants and applied to cropland as a way to reduce phosphorus draining into lakes and rivers after intense rainstorms.
In Iowa, where excess nitrogen draining from agricultural land threatens water quality, we’ve worked with partners to develop subsurface bioreactors and restore oxbows in the Boone River. Bioreactors remove nitrogen from drainage water, and oxbows increase the ability of the Boone River watershed and its floodplain to absorb surplus nitrogen
With partners, Sand County Foundation began Wisconsin’s first watershed-wide phosphorus pollution reduction project using the state’s innovative Adaptive Management Option. The AMO allows municipal governments to save money by preventing phosphorus pollution rather than treating water to remove phosphorus.
In a state where over 90% of the land is privately owned and ranching is a predominant way of life, Sand County Foundation and partners are investigating land management systems that can enhance livelihoods, build resilience against weather extremes, and potentially help alleviate growing pressure on the state’s water resources.
Pay-for-Performance is a targeted approach to investing limited conservation program funding. Instead of paying for specific farm practices, such as cover crops or riparian buffers, it calculates farmer payments based on the net environmental improvement. Pay-for-Performance may be thought of as using taxpayers dollars to achieve specific environmental outcomes.