Water Quality Task Force Hearing
May 23, 2019
The following is a transcript of remarks made by Matt Sheaffer, President of the South Central Chapter of the Wisconsin Farmers Union, at the May 8th Water Quality Task Force hearing in Lancaster, WI. The legislature is hosting 12 listening sessions throughout the state this year to gather information on improving surface water and groundwater quality. Visit http://midwestadvocates.org/speak-up-for-clean-water for more information.
I’d like to thank the members of the legislature for the opportunity to speak on a topic that is so important to me and my community here in southern Wisconsin. My name is Matt Sheaffer, and my family raises pastured pork and chicken near Brodhead in southwestern Rock County. I am President of the South-Central Chapter of the Wisconsin Farmers Union representing farmers and eaters in Green, Rock and Lafayette counties. Over the last two decades, the majority of my family’s income has come from farming—we’ve raised hogs, poultry, sheep, and vegetables. Along the way, we’ve fed thousands of families, trained scores of employees and seen countless sunrises on the way to Saturday morning farmers markets. Through it all, our goal has been to raise delicious, nutritious food without compromising the health of the land and water upon which our family and our neighbors’ families depend.
In my humble opinion, farming is the best way of life there is. But as many of you know, it can also be one of the toughest. It’s no secret that times are tough for many families in farm country. Many farmers know they can be doing better for the land and for our water, but they don’t have the resources to implement the practices that will make a difference. Here in southern Wisconsin, we’ve still got a long way to go. According to the WI DNR’s 2018 List of Impaired Waters - Lafayette, Green and Rock counties have 116 impaired bodies of water - 91 of which suffer from either over sedimentation, high phosphorous or both. Such conditions are mainly attributed to surface runoff from farm fields. While many farmers are adjusting growing practices to incorporate no till planting, strip tilling, cover cropping and utilizing buffer strips along water ways, far too many are still farming fencerow to creek and more precious topsoil is carried away with every rainfall.
I urge the legislature to invest in programs that encourage farmers to keep the soil covered with seasonal cover crops or perennial pastures. Keeping the soil covered reduces runoff, retains organic matter in the fields and keeps our water cleaner. Incentivize crop farmers to seed down robust waterways that keep the soil in the field and that are designed using the most recent climate data which show stronger, more frequent rain events. Skinny, 8’ wide waterways aren’t going to cut it anymore as rain events intensify. Fully fund county conservation departments which are staffed by locals whose handshakes and boots on the ground assist farmers with implementation of state standards for runoff management. Restore funding for grazing programs and research that were responsible for the conversion of hundreds of thousands of acres to perennial pasture in the early 2000s. Lastly, fund a statewide effort to promote and market Wisconsin pasture-raised meats so that true profitability can be achieved on ground that stays covered by perennial pasture.
Many people argue that more surface water research needs to be done before any action is taken. I would push back and argue that the relationship between good runoff management and clean water is well documented, and we can do a lot more with the knowledge we already have. Wisconsin is the birthplace of the Soil Conservation Service, which in 1933 chose the 92,000 acre Coon Creek Watershed in Vernon County as the first conservation project in the nation. Let’s build upon that legacy and get serious about implementation and execution. These things don’t happen without substantial resources, but I can’t think of a wiser investment for the future of Wisconsin than clean water protection.