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Agricultural Innovation Takes Shape in Great Lakes Region, Helping Solve Solutions Today for Challenges Tomorrow

Posted by Jocelyn Benjamin, USDA in Conservation
Nov 05, 2020
NRCS Demonstration Farms Manager Barry Bubolz, left, discusses corn planted into winter rye harvested a few weeks earlier
NRCS Demonstration Farms Manager Barry Bubolz, left, discusses corn planted into winter rye harvested a few weeks earlier, with participants at a NRCS Lower Fox Demonstration Farms field day. (6-15-2016)

If we plan to survive in the future, we must address today’s most pressing concerns in agriculture. Preparing the land to continue to meet food, fiber, fuel, feed, and climate demands is a tall order to fill for growing populations. USDA has aligned all its resources, programs and research to give farmers with the tools they need to help meet these challenges.

USDA agencies, like the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), are supporting the department-wide effort to stimulate innovation and enable farmers to position American agriculture as a leader in providing solutions to climate challenges, through its Agricultural Innovation Agenda (AIA).

The world’s population is expected to reach more than 9.7 billion by 2050. Agricultural lands will need to be more productive. NRCS is working to support producers throughout the country as they implement practices to conserve natural resources now and into the future.

The AIA’s goal is to increase U.S. agricultural production by 40 percent while cutting the environmental footprint of U.S. agriculture in half by 2050. That means, NRCS needs to support farmers, ranchers and forest landowners as they do their part to grow more food while protecting the environment.

Producers in major watersheds across the U.S. are using innovation and technology to sustainably manage their operations, helping to create environmentally sound landscapes that are productive and profitable.

Lower Fox Demonstration Farms field day participants view a multi-species inter-seeded test plot
Lower Fox Demonstration Farms field day participants view a multi-species inter-seeded test plot. The Demonstration Farms are able to try different species mixes to test what works. (6-15-2016)

Conservation efforts in Wisconsin’s Lower Fox River watershed is one-way NRCS is working with agricultural producers and partners to help develop sustainable working landscapes. A critical focus in this watershed is supporting AIA’s goal is to reduce phosphorus and sediment losses from agricultural fields.

Through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI), NRCS is working with county partners to develop innovative approaches for Wisconsin farmers to improve water quality in the Great Lakes Region.

The partnership developed and launched this watershed’s first GLRI Demonstration Farm Network. It identifies eight key farms to develop and demonstrate proven conservation systems that local farms could adopt. The demo network helped farmers adopt advanced soil health techniques, including planting green, interseeding cover crops, low disturbance manure applications and integrating managed grazing with cropping systems. The partnership also initiated a new conservation farmer-to-farmer mentoring project.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and NRCS works together to track the progress of the conservation systems by conducting edge of field monitoring, stream monitoring, and soil and water assessment tool (SWAT) modeling. Monitoring equipment is installed at the edge of a farm field to evaluate the quality of water draining from the fields.

Participants learn about soil health from Demonstration Farms Partner and UW-Extension Agriculture Agent, Jamie Patton
Participants learn about soil health from Demonstration Farms Partner and UW-Extension Agriculture Agent, Jamie Patton at a NRCS Lower Fox Demonstration Farms field day. (11-6-2015)

Soil health monitoring also occurs on the same USGS sites, through a joint venture with NRCS, UW-Green Bay and Purdue University. Changes in soil disturbance and post-harvest plant residue cover, called Normalized Difference Tillage Index (NDTI) is tracked through Satellite imagery.

And thanks to watershed partners, farmers can now try farm equipment for free or at a low cost. Partners purchased farm equipment for no-till planting/planting green, interseeding cover crops, and low-disturbance manure applications. Now that they are familiar with those tools, farmers are purchasing similar equipment for their operations.

The Fox Demo Farms are helping farmers in a critical watershed figure out what works and what doesn’t for productive, sustainable agriculture. The proven conservation systems they’re using are saving them time on the field with less work and money, achieving the same or better yields.

There are many other conservation efforts underway in the Lower Fox River watershed, many of which are funded through the GLRI. The Lower Fox River watershed is one of four Agricultural Priority Watersheds in the GLRI Action Plan focused on protecting and restoring a vital water resource.

GLRI launched in 2010 to protect and restore the largest system of fresh surface water in the world. NRCS, partners and other federal agencies are working through GLRI resources to target the biggest threats to the Great Lakes and accelerate efforts towards long-term restoration goals for this important natural resource.

For more about the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, visit the GLRI webpage.

Jocelyn Benjamin is a Public Affairs Specialist with USDA. Jocelyn can be reached at jocelyn.benjamin@usda.gov

Category/Topic: Conservation

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