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The View from Here: Conservation on the family farm

Mike Gangwer Published on 17 January 2014

Delivering conservation is challenging. The dynamics of both the family farm (the physical attributes) and the farm family (the human attributes) give way to uniqueness and constant change.

At a recent farm visit with my NRCS colleagues and a private contractor, the challenge was especially manifest. Here is the field report.

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The family farm is relatively small in terms of herd size and land base. The production area site, what we used to call the headquarters area, is nearly 60 years old. Not much updating has occurred, so we are looking at tiestalls, overhead pipelines, a drag-chain gutter cleaner and straw for bedding.

The cows are on pasture for about eight months out of the year and housed in the barn overnight and through the winter months. The barn manure is dry enough to stack on a concrete pad with about 1-foot-high concrete walls and no roof.

The milk house process water enters a pipe and is discharged through a field tile. The exercise area, a concrete surface, is not roofed. In the middle of the lot is a concrete feeder tied to an upright concrete silo where corn silage is stored.

This is a facility that is already decades old and is well past its design life. Yet it is operational and does meet Grade A milk standards. However, we have three resource concerns. One, the milk house effluent is discharged into a field and flows directly to a drainage ditch.

Two, the lot runoff is not contained; it leaves the concrete surface after a rainfall event, flowing downhill to a depressional area, and settles. This is a groundwater concern. Three, the dry stack facility is not roofed, so runoff after a rainfall event is not contained. This volume enters a surface ditch.

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The inventory and evaluation of the production area site is based on a thorough inventory of all buildings, lots and surface areas, and then evaluating if we have any polluted runoff from the site that degrades surface or groundwater. On this farm, there are three.

Here we are with the planner and the landowner talking through the question: What to do? The very nature of planning, at least in terms of NRCS, is helping the landowner mitigate the discharges so that we are delivering conservation in the form of protecting and enhancing water quality.

We also evaluate soils on the production area site, especially in terms of site suitability for new construction and soils exposed to water erosion.

In nearly all cases, we ask an engineer to help us, given much of the mitigating solutions are construction- related. The common ones are the installation of a waste storage facility (liquid or dry), a roof and roof gutter, and concrete flooring or walls to contain manures and bedding.

We have our NRCS environmental engineer with us. She is adding technical insight to the answers in the form of what is acceptable, feasible and fits in the landscape. This is enormously valuable so the landowner knows what options are available.

Generally, the solutions are straightforward; the landowner adopts the ones that he or she will install and implement. A record of them is found in the schedule of implementation.

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However, the farm family is not as easy. On this farm, there are three generations. The oldest is retired but still helps out. The middle generation is the decision-maker, and the youngest is just graduated from a land-grant college. The young man was with us for most of the visit, and while he did not say much, he was listening and learning.

There are two additional dynamics on this farm that challenge this family. One is the urbanization of the landscape. We saw million-dollar homes a quarter-mile from the production area site. Yes, the farm has been here for decades, but these new homeowners are likely concerned with odors, dusts and even aesthetics of their new neighborhood.

The next issue is a big one. Some of the items in the schedule of implementation are likely NRCS-contracted conservation practices, including updating the dry stack facility with a better floor and a roof, and the big one, a slurry or liquid waste storage facility.

These are part of EQIP, our environmental quality incentive program. This pool of federal money is earmarked for farmers installing conservation practices and then managing them so the public resources (soil and water) are protected and enhanced.

Yet this production area site, while still functioning and at standards, is largely depreciated out. In other words, the farm family has been living off depreciation for some time now. This is a value call on my part, admittedly. Yet I saw barns and facilities just like this when I was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin in the middle ’70s … nearly 40 years ago.

Conservation planning does not include, in an overt manner, the evaluation of the relative state of depreciation or the landowners’ management ability. As planners, we do not purposely inject an opinion about the relative condition of the facility or what we might interpret as the management ability of the farm family.

What we do is attempt to find options that can work given what we have inventoried and thus let the landowner chose the one or ones that he or she will make work. This attempt is done honestly given the context of our training and experience.

We do not prescribe anything. We present options and, with our engineer, think about what happens in terms of operations and management. That is, after we leave the driveway, this farm family must make these solutions work.

One overarching attribute we see today are landowners, the father and son, with an attitude of commitment toward finding solutions to address these three resource concerns. There is no hesitation on their part. We call this “ready, willing and able” to move into the implementation phase once the planning, and specifically the schedule of implementation, is signed.

May I also comment that at least from my experience most college graduates chose other careers, off the farm, when the facilities are old and depreciated out. Today, this is not the case, and I admire this young man a lot, making a commitment to come home and, as a third-generation dairyman, keep the farm going.

Here is the bottom line: Conservation planning must include more than just the physical attributes that is the family farm. We have to include the human attributes too, or what I sometimes call the human environment.

Today, in spite of a decades-old facility with lots of wear and a multitude of challenges, this family is ready, willing and able to make decisions, change their operation to mitigate resource concerns and manage them properly.

We cannot simply (on-site) evaluate the goals and objectives, and in fact the feelings of the people working this farm, in spite of what we may feel is an expected outcome. We leave the driveway after a few hours.

This third-generation dairy family has been here for six or seven decades. That counts for more than anything we have to contribute. This is the art of conservation, and it begins with listening and learning rather than telling and prescribing. PD

  • Mike Gangwer

  • Agricultural Scientist
  • USDA-NRCS

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