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Wisconsin offering new grants to farmers to lead initiatives that curb nutrient runoff

by Carolyn Orr ~ August 2016 ~ Stateline Midwest »
Inspired by some of the farmer-led projects being done in neighboring Iowa and looking for new ways to improve water quality, legislators in Wisconsin are providing financial assistance to groups of agricultural producers that collaborate on new conservation initiatives.
The Producer Led Watershed Protection Grants Program was included in the state’s current budget (adopted in 2015), which provides $250,000 annually, with individual grants capped at $20,000. Participating producers must provide a 1:1 funding match.
Under the program, farmers work with nutrient-management specialists in a single watershed. Each grant application must define a method to reduce nutrients entering the watershed, have at least five farmers who agree to participate, and describe how to measure the project’s impact.
“These projects are based on agriculture producers voluntarily developing and implementing nonpoint runoff abatement projects, which are not only good for the watershed, but also good for the producers’ bottom line,” Wisconsin Sen. Sheila Harsdorf says.
According to Wisconsin Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, this producer-led grant program was developed after discussions throughout the state on how farmer-to-farmer communication could promote positive change in agriculture and water quality.
In order to encourage producers to implement new conservation measures, financial incentives can be included in the grant to help them move forward with a variety of strategies — for example, using nutrients more efficiently, planting cover crops, better measuring runoff, improving crop diversity, or installing agricultural drains and filter strips.
Fourteen grants were awarded during the first round of applications, with most of these projects being a collaboration between farmers and either a county land conservation department or a University of Wisconsin extension office.
Many of the projects will include field days and conferences for outreach. Their first progress reports will be due in spring 2017, and Wisconsin is now accepting the second round of applications for the matching grant program.
This new initiative in Wisconsin is just one of many examples of how states in the Midwest are trying to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus runoff into the region’s rivers and lakes. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, across the watersheds that feed the Mississippi River, agriculture contributes up to 70 percent of the nitrogen and phosphorus that end up in the river and, ultimately, the Gulf of Mexico. (Other contributors include suburban lawns, industrial and sewage discharges, failing septic systems and even places such as golf courses.)
These excess nutrients have resulted in drinking water contamination and aquatic dead zones, giving rise to human health issues and legal challenges. As a result, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been providing cost shares to farmers who implement conservation planting or cover crops to decrease nutrient runoff — yet these practices have been adopted in less than 30 percent of the Midwest’s crop acreage.
States, then, are looking for other ways to curb nutrient runoff. Iowa is building shallow wetlands to filter runoff water before it hits the rivers, while also providing cost-share programs to farmers who use cover crops or reduce tillage. Minnesota is requiring buffers between farmed ground and bodies of water, and Ohio is restricting manure and fertilizer applications during periods of expected runoff due to rain or snow.


Articles written by Carolyn Orr, CSG Midwest staff liaison for the Midwestern Legislative Conference Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee.