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James Tye and Patrick Maier: Farmers and city dwellers share conservation goals
James Tye and Patrick Maier: Farmers and city dwellers share conservation goals

James Tye and Patrick Maier: Farmers and city dwellers share conservation goals


Drive out past the north shores of Lake Mendota this fall and you will see more green fields than in years past. Dairy farmers, planting winter crops to prevent erosion, are expanding their roles as stewards of the land. Their city neighbors are opening their wallets to support them.

As we celebrate National Farmers’ Day today in Dane County, dairy farmers and nonprofit advocates in the greater Madison area continue to test new practices together because we know we can’t improve water quality and farm sustainability without each other. We are building a blueprint for urban-rural partnerships that provides a national model and the best hope for a U.S. solution to enhancing the productivity of our rich agricultural land and increasing access to cleaner water.

Clean Lakes Alliance, with its 2,000 friends who donate annually to the organization, now ranks as the second-largest clean lake advocacy group in the nation. And Yahara Pride Farms, a farmer-led sustainability group, offers action-based sharing between farmers to improve soil, water quality, and farm sustainability and profitability — all at the same time. Yahara Pride Farms represents a template that other counties and states have adopted.

With this kind of smart cooperation, Dane County environmentalists, including farmers, aim to figure out how to restore the connectivity between those who consume food and those who farm the land to provide food for them.

Climate changes interrupt our progress. Farmers have a shrinking window to perform conservation techniques due to flooding. Flash floods splashing off buildings, roads, driveways, sidewalks and parking lots — called urban hard places — drag pollutants with them when the water heads to wells, lakes and rivers. The amount of those sprawling urban hard places continues to grow, doubling in our area since 1970 from 41,000 acres to 75,000 acres.

How do we get back to a system in which rain fell on prairies, forests and trees, and filtered through the soil to replenish clean water to the aquifer, an underground reservoir that fills our wells and water systems with healthy drinking water?

Farmers in the Dane County area in the past few years reduced the amount of phosphorus from manure and commercial fertilizer with exciting new agriculture technology. And city residents limited urban runoff from leaves and parking lots from flowing into area lakes. Many dairy farmers in Dane County use techniques, such as injecting manure under the ground to reduce phosphorus runoff, as best practices.

This comes at a cost, of course, and farmers are making the investment. Clean Lakes Alliance endorses these efforts by using the bulk of its $1 million in grants since 2010 to support new agricultural practices.

Only farmers can advise other farmers how to improve their business. The role of urban groups such as Clean Lakes Alliance has been to support that constant conversation between farmers — not tell them what they should do. Area nonprofits educate city dwellers about the shared interest of farmers and urban residents, and how to fund the farmers’ efforts.

Farmers are arms-open people. Clean Lakes Alliance solidifies the link between city residents and farmers with the opportunity to support an acre of farmland conservation with its Conserve an Acre donation.

And dairy farmers welcome visitors on farm tours that you can book via Travel Wisconsin. Once you see farmers in action and talk to them about their devotion to the land and their animals, you will understand the excitement we share about the bright future that our continued rural-urban partnerships will bring.

Tye is founder and executive director of Clean Lakes Alliance: Maier farms in rural Waunakee on his family’s multi-generational, 1,500-acre dairy farm. His family has participated in Yahara Pride Farms programs since the group started in 2012:

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