Person of the Year: The Dairy Farmer

The worst drought in decades brings Dane County’s rich and varied agricultural community into sharp focus. Dairy farmers in particular have been hit hard, but surviving—even thriving—in hard times is all in a day’s work.

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The Ripp brothers on their farm

Back in the 1980s—around the time the rest of us were witlessly chucking our empty Tab cans out the car window—Chuck Ripp’s cows freely grazed the rolling hills north of Waunakee. You can catch a glimpse of them in an aerial snapshot hanging on his office wall. The farm is frozen in time about halfway through its evolution, slightly larger than when his grandfather bought it in the late 1940s, but not yet tricked out with four free-stall barns and the environmentally conscious renovations of today. In this photo the cattle are free to roam, munching on grass and slurping at will from a picturesque waterway, one that connects to Six Mile Creek and, eventually, Lake Mendota.

“We thought we were doing everything right,” says Ripp, shaking his head. “We had no idea. We didn’t know the implications from runoff going into the waters like we do now.”

Ripp’s Dairy Valley—like Jeff Endres’s, a multigenerational joint family venture between Chuck and his brothers Troy and Gary—is nestled in an area of the county officials have determined a hot spot on the phosphorous target-area map. Farmers use cow manure to fertilize their crops, but when the rains come, phosphorus—critical for soil health but dangerous for aquatic ecosystems—runs straight off the fields and into the waterway, where each pound creates five hundred pounds of algae in the Yahara chain of lakes. Phosphorus is generated in urban areas too, but it turns out it’s tens of millions of dollars cheaper (in some cases $30 per pound versus $120) to remove it upstream on the farm through adaptive management techniques, versus end-of-pipe at city sewage facilities. That’s why the county is working with farm families as part of County Executive Parisi’s Dane County Water Partnership, a multifaceted, multiyear initiative to seek out “win-wins” for all Dane County residents. It’s not just about the phosphorus; the county’s priority, through its Department of Land and Water Resources, and UW–Extension, is to work in partnership with farmers on anything they might need, especially right now with the drought. In addition to the drought relief flyover, Parisi has lobbied hard for federal attention to conditions in Dane County. Extension created a centralized website called Drought 2012, and officials say they make sure to get their feet on the ground at the farms so they can really listen to what farmers actually need.

“We can’t just go into their farms and tell them what they need to do and then leave and expect them to implement anything,” says Kevin Connors, county director of Land and Water Resources. “That’s gonna fail. Really fail. What it really takes is education, years of trust and two-way respect.”

There are low-investment, low-tech ways to effectively manage runoff, like planting a buffer strip along a drainage ditch or a stream, or a cover crop that holds nutrients in the soil. And then there are big ways, like the enormous community manure digester on the hill overlooking Ripp’s Dairy Valley and his two neighbors, White Gold Dairy and Endres Dairy (that’s Dick Endres, not Jeff). Liquid manure—90,000 gallons a day—from all three farms is pumped underground into the huge vats on the hill, along with 10,000 gallons of food waste, where the methane is converted into power for approximately 2,500 homes on Alliant Energy’s grid. The processed poop is filtered back to the farms, free of charge and with fifty-eight to seventy-four percent less phosphorus, so when it’s applied to the fields it’s significantly less risky for the waterway. (There’s also a compacted, dried-down amount that’s sold to landscape companies.) The manure fertilizes the crops, the crops are fed to the cows, and the whole cycle starts anew.

Wisconsin currently has thirty-five “cow power” plants statewide, the most of anyone in the nation—Germany, on the other hand has 7,000—but they’re generally privately owned by the farmers who constructed them. The Waunakee digester is unique in that it’s the first collaboration of its kind in the state, a partnership between public agencies, private companies and willing farmers. It’s owned and operated by Clear Horizons LLC, which sells the power to Alliant. It was funded in part by a USDA grant and facilitated by county staff, and farmers are not paid for the use of their manure—nor does it cost them or the county anything. The first project employed sixty contractors and 230 subcontractors and suppliers. Plans for a second digester with new partners are currently under way outside Middleton, and county officials estimate it will produce just as many jobs as the first one. A total of five digesters are included in the Clean Lakes Alliance’s energetic plan to reduce annual phosphorous loads in the Yahara watershed by half.

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