Three farmers walking in field

Wisconsin’s Unique Program for Scaling Farmer Leadership: Producer-Led Watershed Protection Grants, a Q&A with Manager Rachel Rushmann

Farmer leadership is critical for scaling up conservation to meet water quality goals, and the state of Wisconsin has a unique program to support farmer leaders: the Producer-Led Watershed Protection grant program, operated through the state’s Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection (DATCP).

Several states have strong farmer leadership in conservation, but Wisconsin may be the only one with a state-run program to fund and support farmer-led groups. It got started in 2016 under then-Governor Scott Walker as a governor-led budget initiative with broad support from across the agricultural and conservation sectors as a promising way to build farmer involvement in and ownership of nutrient reduction efforts.

“Together, with farmers and collaborators, we will be able to accomplish far more in getting more conservation on the ground,” said Rachel Rushmann, who manages the Producer-Led program.

To be eligible for funding, groups must have the involvement of at least five producers who farm for a living and have agreed to work together, and in collaboration with a local agency or organization, to address one or more resource concerns in their watershed. The program replicated the models provided by pre-existing farmer-led groups organized by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Division of Extension and a local nonprofit, thereby scaling up farmer-driven conservation to benefit more of the state.

“Producer-led groups alone won’t solve all of our soil and water quality issues, but they are a great way to get a more organized effort around conservation happening in a local area,” says Rushmann.

In the following Q&A, Rushmann elaborates on the successes, challenges, and replicability of the program.

What is one success of the program that you are most proud of so far, and why?

RR: I am very proud of the collaboration within the groups and among the groups that have formed a state-wide network of producers and partners working to improve soil health and water quality. Each group has a set of diverse partnerships, which enables them to leverage resources and be more successful. We have recently developed regional networks to further facilitate information and idea exchange and networking among farmers.

What is one challenge the program is currently encountering, and how are you trying to overcome it?

RR: Since groups are locally driven and do not have funding for extensive monitoring, tracking their progress regarding the impact on water quality has been a challenge. To address this, we have established a tracking program and are requiring additional information from groups to help us estimate the potential sediment and nutrient reductions associated with the projects and practices they have installed.

The information we are collecting is related to their incentive payments and cost-share programs that are paid by our program, such as operation type (grain, dairy, vegetable, etc.), current crop rotation and management practices (tillage, manure application method, presence of cover crops, etc.), conservation practices implemented and associated details (cover crop type, planting method, type of reduced tillage adopted, grassed waterway, etc.), the size of implementation area, and incentive paid.

This information is evaluated using SnapPlus, the state’s nutrient management planning software, based on site characteristics specific to a group’s watershed. For more information on this project, contact Dana.Christel@wi.gov.

If you had to create this program over again, what would you change?

RR: I would include a county boundary as a defining project area, in addition to watershed boundaries. It can become complicated for groups to choose an area when they want to ensure they aren’t inhibiting farmer participation just because of a boundary issue. Adding a county boundary would allow them to include more farmers within a larger area, which would make particular sense when their collaborator is a county conservationist.

What do you think are replicable aspects of this program for other states?

RR: The partnerships, the gatherings of farmers, the education and outreach, and the tracking program. The farmer leadership can be developed, but there must be interested and dedicated farmers in order to make these projects successful.

If you were giving advice to someone in another state about implementing a similar program, what would you tell them?

RR: Be prepared to provide resources, advice and options. And be flexible. None of these groups are going to function the same exact way and that’s okay.

Regarding the tracking program, other states could utilize the Nutrient Tracking Tool (NTT) from NRCS, since SnapPlus is Wisconsin specific.

Also incorporate a statewide or regional event(s) to get all of the groups together to share ideas and network.

What are you excited about for the future of the program?

RR: I am excited to grow the program and the groups within the four regional networks we recently set up, so we can better support all of the groups and share more ideas and resources.

I am also really excited to work with Dana Christel, who joined the Producer-Led team in December to lead the tracking project and help educate groups on their impact to water quality and soil health, which could help more farmers transition to more conservation-based systems. Each group will get a report generated by DATCP, and then Dana and likely myself will work with each group to show the benefits they are getting by using conservation practices. This will be a great tool for getting more conservation on the ground and showing the resiliency that a conservation-based system allows.

To learn more about forming a farmer-led watershed group, read “Producer-Led Group Roadmap: Finding Success in Farmer-Led Watershed Organizations,” published in June by DATCP in partnership with Dairy Strong Sustainability Alliance and The Nature Conservancy.

Rachel RushmannAbout Rachel Rushmann

Rachel Rushmann is the program manager for the Producer-Led Watershed Protection Grant program at DATCP. She also manages the NRCS Door-Kewaunee Demo Farms Network and is currently the team lead on the depth to bedrock verification SOC standard. Rachel holds a B.S. in Agricultural and Applied Economics from UW-Madison.

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