Formed by state law in the 1930s, Michigan’s 75 conservation districts offer services and guidance that help the state’s farmers and landowners implement best land practices, enhance environmental stewardship and improve on-farm food safety measures.
Michigan’s conservation districts implement a variety of programs, from cost-share assistance and water resource management to invasive species eradication and food safety assistance, says Lori Phalen, executive director of the Michigan Association of Conservation Districts.
“Conservation districts are the local leaders working with farmers and bringing the various programs to the farm level,” Phalen says. “Local conservation districts have the connections, relationships and trust of our farmers.”
In fact, Kyle Mead, a technician at the Van Buren Conservation District, guesses that he has met almost every farmer in his county over the last 15 years. Visiting farm operations ranging in size from a half-acre to 50,000 acres has given him the experience and background to deliver a customized approach.
“We try to build a response to issues on the farm that are tailored to the producer,” says Mead, who works extensively in his county with the statewide Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP).
This voluntary verification program helps farms of all sizes and commodities throughout the state prevent or minimize agricultural pollution risks. As Van Buren County’s MAEAP technician, Mead provides technical support to Windshadow Farm & Dairy, now one of the more than 5,250 MAEAP-verified farms recognized as top environmental stewards in Michigan.
Farm owner Ron Klein can’t say enough. He estimates his farm today sequesters about 59 more tons of atmospheric carbon dioxide per acre than in 2013.
“We have increased the organic content of our soil from less than 1% to 3.2% in the past six years – which is quite remarkable – with the help of the conservation district,” he says.
Keeping the Nutrients Where They Belong
Surface and groundwater should flow pure, not taking any nutrients with them. At Windshadow Farm & Dairy, farm owners Ron and Suzanne Klein have made great strides in attaining that stewardship goal with technical support from the local conservation district.
“For our farm, walking hand in hand with the conservation district has been a tremendous benefit for us,” says Klein, who operates the Grade A goat dairy and produces cow and goat cheeses in a state-of-the-art creamery. “The district cares about the environment and us as farmers and doing the right thing. I don’t think we would have made it through the first few years without their assistance.”
With help from the Van Buren Conservation District, the couple established grass filter strips to capture nutrients and purify water from the milking parlor and dry lot (a fenced-in area with no grass or mud used to contain the cattle). A managed intensive grazing plan from the district technician improved the efficiency and nutritional value of the farm’s pastures and hayfields. Additionally, the farm’s composted wastes and wastewater are spread on fields under a comprehensive nutrient management program that feeds the soils.
“Our goal has been the only nutrients that leave this property go out the farm gate in our cheese,” Klein says.
Trusted Relationship Improves Food Safety
Across the state, trusted farmer-technician relationships have led to a conservation district partnership to help Michigan’s produce farmers improve on-farm produce safety and to comply with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s new Produce Safety Rule within the Food Safety Modernization Act.
Using MAEAP as a model, the Michigan Department of Agriculture & Rural Development (MDARD) arranged for farmers to receive free, voluntary and confidential technical assistance from produce safety technicians at one of six conservation district offices in varying regions of the state. These personnel are trained to identify on-farm produce safety issues and assist farmers in confidentially correcting those concerns.
“We have such a good relationship between our farms and conservation districts that it seemed like an appropriate partnership and would best benefit our growers,” says Amber Matulis, Food Safety Modernization Unit manager for MDARD’s Food and Dairy Division. “It is a great opportunity for them to identify on-farm practices that need improvement and continue to move the ball forward on food safety on their farm.”
All About Grass Filters
• Grass filter strips are moderately angled slopes designed to purify runoff water and capture nutrients.
• For the best results, filter strips should be at least 20 feet long with a 1% to 15% incline – less than 5% is preferred.
• These filter strips are multipurpose. They can serve as a location for snow storage in the winter.
• Grass filter strips are affordable to build in comparison to conventional curb-and-gutter systems.
• Aim for 4 to 6 inches of dense grass cover (mow periodically to maintain).
Source: Metropolitan Area Planning Council