Sara McMillian of Purdue University doing water quality sampling

North Central Region Water Network Awarded $1 Million Grant from the EPA to Cultivate Farmer Conservation Leadership

We are excited to announce that the North Central Region Water Network and our partners at Purdue University, the University of Arkansas, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison were awarded a nearly $1 Million dollar grant through the US EPA’s, “Farmer to Farmer” grant program. The project will work to build farmer leadership to facilitate farmer-to-farmer learning with the ultimate goal of helping farmers be successful with their on-farm conservation and feel inspired to lead their communities toward a future of thriving farms, healthy landscapes, and clean water. 

By developing new farmer leadership trainings and innovative, data-driven outreach methods, Project partners will grow the number of farmer leaders through the Mississippi and Atchafalaya River Basins (MARB) and create opportunities for them to share real-world knowledge and insights about implementing practices on farms and across watersheds while maintaining farm profitability and practicality.

The project will also  define core competencies, or essential knowledge and skills, for farmer conservation leaders, building off of previous work identifying core competencies for watershed professionals. These core competencies will be used to create training curricula for farmer leaders to be piloted in three pilot watersheds across the region.

The project chose three predominantly agricultural watersheds in the MARB that represent the variety of landscapes and social contexts for the pilot watersheds. 

  • The Sinsinawa watershed in southwest Wisconsin was recently designated a National Water Quality Initiative watershed by NRCS and is a top priority watershed for nitrogen in Wisconsin’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy. While farmer engagement efforts in this watershed are just beginning, there is an established network of farmer-led watershed groups across the state funded by the Department of Agriculture which will provide foundational social infrastructure. 
  • The Great Bend of the Wabash watershed in central Indiana is in an EPA Hypoxia Task Force priority watershed with active farmer engagement efforts conducted by the nonprofit Wabash River Enhancement Corporation, which will partner on the project. 
  • The third watershed will be in northeast Arkansas, where Arkansas Discovery Farms plans to place a newly funded demonstration farm and 3 satellite farms where poultry litter will be applied to cropland as fertilizer. 

All three sites need more farmer engagement in conservation practice adoption and watershed management to reach their respective state’s nutrient reduction goals. Despite the valuable presence of farmers practicing conservation, these individuals are still a minority. In addition to the farmer leadership training, the team will also develop farmer-to-farmer communication campaigns to improve communication strategies supporting on-the-ground programming and help increase the number of farmer leaders within the pilot watersheds.  

In tandem with farmer leadership training, water quality monitoring will be conducted in the Wabash and Arkansas pilot watersheds to monitor change and track changes in water quality in relation to conservation practice adoption. The project team will also monitor attitudinal and behavioral impacts of the farmer leadership training in all three watersheds.  

This project builds on a 2019 needs assessment for farmer leadership co-lead by the Network, and an ongoing multi-state Farmer to Farmer project that is a partnership between the REACH program at Mississippi State University, the University of Kentucky, the Discovery Farms programs in Wisconsin and Arkansas, and the University of Illinois. 

The project, which began this month, will continue until the summer of 2024. 

*Featured Image: Sara McMillian, Associate Professor in Agricultural and Biological Engineering at Purdue University and project partner, conducting water quality sampling. 

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