This is a transcript of a conversation between Martha Allen, Sweet Water's Communications Coordinator, and Dan Stoffel, long time Sweet Water board member and farmer in the Milwaukee river watershed.
Allen: How did you originally get involved with water issues in Milwaukee?
Stoffel: I got a degree in biochemistry from the University of Wisconsin and after a period of time spent in labs and doing research I returned to farming. Since that time, as a farmer, I have a history of working on land conservation issues and innovative farming practices. I was chairman of the land conservation committee in Washington County as a county board supervisor for about 10 years and I was also involved as a cooperator in the Milwaukee River Non-point project.
A: How have water and land conservation issues impacted your work? What kinds of projects are you working on right now?
S: I’m mostly retired but my siblings and I still own a farm, almost 900 acres, in the Milwaukee river watershed in the far Northwest corner of Washington County. A stream running through our property is a tributary to the Milwaukee river so just about everything we do has some impact on water quality here. On the farm, my projects are pretty much related to farming practices and land management. We are 100% no till. We sold a buffer to the DNR along our creek which buffers 50 feet of our land along the waterway. We’re also working with the Sand county foundation who are doing some research on our farm related to phosphorous retention in the soil. We’re always trying to innovate on our no-till process to make it more functional for us and better for the soil. We’re all continuing to learn what works and what is the best solution for each particular crop. None of these practices are finished science. Things are constantly shifting right now. New ideas are constantly making their way in and getting implemented.
A: Obviously, the issues that face agricultural communities are very different from those that many urban areas face. What are some of the issues that you see as being unique to rural areas and how do they related to the concerns of urban areas?
S: I think this is actually a really big issue. There is often a big disconnect between urban life and what’s happening in agricultural communities. As the TMDL’s are released there will hopefully be a discussion about how each community can play a role in the implementation process and how different populations impact each other. For example, local farmers will play a role in keeping phosphorous out of the water upstream of urban areas. Urban areas need to understand what is already going on and what needs to be done to meet these new requirements. That kind of understanding of what rural communities think is going to be essential for cooperation. I’m very concerned about ensuring an understanding between farmers and urban water organizations. Change out here can be environmental but it also needs to be economic. For example, for a farmer, making the switch to no-till is often an economic decision. Farmers choosing to switch their land management strategies aren’t usually doing it to preserve the urban Milwaukee harbor but the fact remains that they are helping out with critical environmental issues. That is an example of a positive change that comes from an economic decision. That’s something that needs to be understood across the board. The focus should be clean water but it also needs to ensure a viable business model or no one will follow through. Additionally, for many rural communities there is definitely a learning curve because it requires so many different pieces to change; there’s new equipment to buy and long-standing habits to change and these things won’t happen overnight. However, in my opinion it’s worth stubbing your toe a few times for that kind of change.
A: What have you found to be the most effective arguments in favor of responsible land and water management practices in rural areas?
S: Well, for our farm in particular, what encouraged us to change our practices was cost and also labor. We are in the Kettle Moraine area which means that we have a lot of clay with very little top soil and a lot of rocks in our fields. We were getting to the point where we couldn’t till with all of the rocks and it was becoming unfeasible. With the no-till, one man can go out and plant 50-60 acres in a day so that’s less than a man-hour involved in the field and less than a half-gallon of fuel. In other, traditional systems you’re probably talking 4-5 gallons of fuel per acre and probably 4-5 man hours. We also get better soil structure because no-till preserves the worm holes, the aeration, and the infrastructure of the soil to allow for better water infiltration. You can see the difference when you compare a no-till field side by side with a field that has other management practices and the no-till always holds more water. All of those things are critical for having a more or less successful crop. So for us, the decision was obvious because of the effort involved as we are getting older and also because it creates a better condition for crops in general. We were also happy to know that we would be decreasing our farm’s impact on the watershed, but it wasn’t the major deciding factor.
A: Many parts of southeastern Wisconsin are shifting between from rural to more urban landscapes currently, especially in the upper reaches of the Milwaukee river watershed. What kinds of issues do you think will be brought to light with these transitions?
S: First of all, urbanization changes how rainfall flows through the watershed. In rural areas, when we experience rainfall it takes a very heavy storm to raise the water levels in our streams and rivers. It takes a fair amount of time to move water laterally in rural areas, because it has to pass through soil and roots and groundwater. In urban areas, that same water usually flows off of properties straight into pipes, ends up in sewers, and is discharged pretty quickly. There’s a lot more ‘flashiness’ in urban areas. In rural areas, particulate matter has a chance to drain out and more water gets absorbed into the soil before it ever hits the waterways. So as there is more urbanization along the Milwaukee river, for example, this will impact the water levels in the rivers and will definitely impact everything downstream as well.
A: What have you seen that makes you proud to be working on water issues in Wisconsin?
S: It makes me very happy to see the shifts that have happened in the acceptance of best practices by farmers. And for those who are not doing no-till, many are using minimum-till which also is beneficial for water quality. There’s more of an awareness that anytime a nutrient from our farms reaches a waterway, not only does it impact the water quality but it’s also an economic loss for the farmer.
I also have enjoyed watching Milwaukee and the entire area change as water quality and land conservation have become increasingly important in all kinds of industries. For that reason, I enjoy being a part of Sweet Water because it stresses a science-based motivation and culture and also encourages participation and cooperation between groups that normally wouldn’t be able to work together and share knowledge and experience. I love the process of completing the science first and then basing your actions and policies on that research and I think that is happening more and more because of groups like Sweet Water.
A: What is your favorite thing to do when you’re not at work?
S: I always have kept bees and I also do some woodworking and gardening. I still very much enjoy the farm management part of things and I really enjoy those kinds of challenging projects.