The seed economy: How environmentally friendly practices are leading to better profits for Marathon County farmers
The Big Story
Pat Socha (last name pronounced “ZA-HA”) is the fourth generation in his family to farm. His vegetable and calving farm out near Edgar near the Fenwood Creek’s origin comprises a couple hundred acres of farmland.
It looks a little different than most of the farms around it. To an outside, like myself, it looks much more pleasant. To a fellow farmer, it might look repulsive.
What’s the disparity? Socha is one of a small but growing number of farmers who are practicing environmentally favorable farming practices. He started with no-till farming and expanded to cover crops. He’s starting to have an influence on his fellow farmers in the area too; some have started doing what he is doing; others have hired him to work on their lands, planting seeds with a special machine that costs $20,000-$30,000.
One can see the difference driving past several farms in the area. On one side is the green grass of field using cover crops. On the other side, in perfect opposition, is a dirty brown field. To an outsider, of course, the field covered in rye and clover among other plants looks a lot nicer, and is nicer on the environment as well. The brown fields don’t look as nice by comparison. But to a farmer, that field is just right. That’s the old way of thinking.
Socha is no hippie. He does care about the environmental aspect of what he’s doing, but he’s frank with me when I ask him. The money and time savings are his primary concern and what got him to start exploring these practices four years ago. This is a business after all.
That’s the selling point, but it’s an old paradigm shift. A new county program is hoping to change that. The county approved asking organizations such as the Wisconsin Counties Association to seek funding in the next state budget to fund a pilot project that would incentivize farmers to reduce their pollution levels.
What’s happening right now is that farmers using manure cover on bare fields is resulting in plenty of nutrients — namely phosphorus — running off into streams such as the Fenwood Creek. That phosphorus makes its way to fish reservoirs such as the Big Eau Pleine. That in turn leads to an increase in algae, which starves the water of oxygen. That leads to less oxygen for fish, and leads to fish kills. Right now organizations are spending a lot of money to oxygenate the water to make sure that doesn’t happen. The last major kill occurred in 2009.
The pilot project would prevent that. If approved and funded by the state, the program would provide real financial incentives to farmers who reduce their pollution. Under the proposal, which is expected to cost roughly $600,000 per year, farmers who reduce their phosphorus levels to under three pounds an acre would receive $3 per year for the first three years of reduction, and $10 per acre per year of maintenance afterward. That increases to $30/$15 for under two pounds per acre, and $40/$20 for less than one pound per acre of runoff.
The point of the incentive, says Marathon County Conservation Program Manager Paul Daigle, is to increase adoption of these practices to 60-70% of the farmers in the Fenwood Creek area. Doing that would spark adoption on its own following that. The project statewide would cost $350 million, a bargain considering the cost of upgrading one municipal water treatment plant to meet new phosphorus levels can run up to $250 million. The impact per dollar spent is enormous compared to individual plant upgrades.
But it turns out, a lot of incentives are already baked into the practices. They already are profit-friendly. Make no mistake about it; a small farm is a small business. Socha is aware of that more than anyone. He is an early member of EPPIC (Eau Pleine Partnership for Integrated Conservation), a group formed to share practices between farmers that are environmentally sustainable. Farmers teaching farmers is far more effective than just the county saying “Hey farmers, do it this way now.”
Socha points to a planting machine in his barn — it cost about $30,000, no small chunk of change. He was definitely nervous when he bought it, Socha tells me, but it has already paid for itself. He not only saves money planting his fields: less than $30 per acre versus up to $50 using a traditional chemical-based approach. It also saves a lot of time. The cover crops prevent water runoff, and keep the soil clumpy and crumbling under his fingers as he digs it out to show me, just like it’s supposed to. That’s healthy soil, and the root structures help keep it that way.
So what does he do with that free time? Socha is paid by several neighboring farms to work their fields, saving them the use of pesticides and other chemicals as well. It’s extra revenue for Socha and for the other farmers it’s cheaper than chemicals. (Something I learned: There are still some chemical applications, but far less than if they’d just went the straight chemical route.)
So if those practices are cheaper and more time-efficient — well, what’s stopping every farmer from adopting them? Even large CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) are using them. If anything is an endorsement of the practices being profitable, it’s the large ag companies using them.
What’s stopping them are two-fold: Cost and momentum.
Even if it is a business expense, the cost of the machines to no-till plant is pretty steep. $30,000 is a good chunk of change. And especially for small farmers, it’s a pricey risk.
The other is paradigmatic. As Socha points out, many farmers would look at a field we’re standing in, which has a healthy soil structure, as “dirty.” Chemical and seed companies often see it the same. A “clean” piece of acreage with brown fields is the ideal they’re looking for.
Socha says he’s gotten some pushback from seed companies, but they’re starting to come around too. If it’s good practice for the farmers and helps keep them profitable, that means the seed companies keep their customers too. But the chemical companies are obviously less enthusiastic, and they’re often entwined with the seed companies.
That’s the piece the incentive structure is meant to help. Providing an additional financial incentive for farmers to take the leap might help more see the long-term financial gains. Once they’ve been in the habit of farming that way, and realizing the financial benefit, the thinking goes, the habit will stick.
Are there downsides? Sure. According to a fact sheet from the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, no till techniques don’t work well on sandy soil or soil with poor drainage. They mention the cost and suggest renting equipment or sharing with neighbors. Grass weed and slug problems can be harder to control. Very wet or very dry soils can be especially challenging for no-till techniques.
The program has been more popular politically — or at least received little if any pushback — than other regulation-type suggestions. Helping small farmers save money and time is far more politically palatable than imposing regulations on them. The county’s Environmental Resource Committee, which has previously balked at adding regulations to already distressed farmers, found the idea of incentivizing environmental behavior much easier to get behind.
The numbers of farms in Wisconsin shrink and consolidate — the state lost 4,961 or 7% of its farms between 2012 and 2017 (the next survey is due in 2022). Mid-sized farms similar to Socha’s are where the bulk of the losses come from. Most new small farms are entering the organic/Community Supported Agriculture arena. Those survive by value-adding: selling products as an experience (ie Pizza on the Farm) or organic/grass-fed/etc to a farmers market audience.
But that model won’t make sense for everyone. For Socha, it just makes more sense on his end to save costs upfront through techniques such as no-till. He increases his revenue on the other end — by reducing expenses — as well as increasing revenue from creating a service other farmers want.
Socha would be the first to tell you. Environmental practices have become profitable practices.
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