A soil health farm feeds local residents in the small community of Manawa

Dan and Ruth Boerst, from Manawa, Wisconsin, farm with soil health practices to help alleviate the effects of food insecurity in their rural American town.

They have partnered with the United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) to implement a variety of soil health and conservation practices, helping to care for their land, while preparing it for they are in the best condition to grow crops and produce for the local pantry. .

Dan and Ruth dreamed of owning their own dairy farm and they set out to make that dream come true.

“We bought this 100-acre farm in 1982; Ruth grew up 5 miles up the road and we knew it was the right place; it was a bankrupt farm and we bought it on the courthouse steps,” Dan explained.

From the start, the couple kept soil health and conservation goals front and center. “We have always been involved in conservation implementation; for the past 15 years we have held at least one field day each year, if not more; we do our best to share soil health practices that work with other farmers,” he said.

Not only does the Milpa Garden mix contain various legumes, crucifers, greens, and vines, but it also creates habitat for beneficial insects, pollinators, and wildlife.

The couple have set aside two acres of their farm for a Green Cover Milpa garden to grow produce to help feed those in need. The Boersts have also signed on as a demonstration farm, sharing conservation practices, technologies and techniques as part of the Upper-Fox-Wolf Demonstration Farm Network.

Funded by the NRCS Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, this partnership effort between NRCS and Waupaca County Land and Water Conservancy established a network of ten farms in eight counties in northeastern Wisconsin. to demonstrate best conservation practices for reducing phosphorus entering the Great Lakes Basin.

As the farm grew, so did the Boersts’ conservation efforts.

“We now farm 470 acres; in 2000 we added a free stall barn and milking parlour,” Dan said. “We have 100 dairy cows and I have also managed to graze beef cattle on a rotational system.”

Ruth Boerst moves her rotationally grazed cattle.

The Boersts first partnered with the NRCS to install grassed waterways on their property through the NRCS Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP). As the couple acquired more land, with the assistance of EQIP, they installed four water and sediment control ponds, underground drains and underground outfalls.

Ponds are an excellent solution to deal with excess water on the farm.

“We recently had a big rain storm; within six hours one of the basins was completely full and was holding water well, releasing it slowly,” Dan said.

Derrick Raspor, NRCS Soil Conservationist and Demo Farm Project Coordinator, explains, “The ponds help Dan farm on sloping land, while improving water quality by trapping sediment on the uplands and preventing it from reach the Little Wolf River. Ponds also reduce gully erosion by controlling the flow of water into the drainage area.

“As we acquired more acres, we heard the runoff on the new property being used to turn the river red and the ravines had to be filled in every year,” Dan said. “The Little Wolf River is really close to us; we knew we could have a positive impact by adding conservation to the landscape.

When the Boersts first bought the property, Ruth says it was so wet they never got to plant until July.

Ruth Boerst and Derrick Raspor NRCS Soil Conservationist and Demo Farm Project Coordinator.  see a recently planted cover crop field.

“It’s one of the many reasons we got involved in implementing soil health and conservation practices,” she said.

The couple added no-till and cover crops to their soil health efforts. With EQIP assistance, the Boersts are demonstrating various multi-species cover crop mixes to see what works.

Dan and Ruth were researching cover crops and came across information about the Green Cover Milpa Garden. The garden is a great way to get fresh produce with minimal labor to feed communities. The Milpa technique originated in Central America where the Mayans used a mixture of corn, squash and beans (known as three sisters) to improve soil and grow food.

Beyond the three sisters, a Green Cover Milpa Garden consists of more than 50 different species of seeds, including leafy greens, squash, cucumbers, pumpkins, melons, beets, beans and crucifers. .

“The garden is a great way for Dan and Ruth to use their 2 acre plot next to their house. Not only does the mix contain various legumes, crucifers, greens and vines, but it also creates habitat for beneficial insects, pollinators and wildlife,” Raspor said.

Ruth says the bounty on the two-acre field near the house was a way for them to do something good for the community. The Boersts Milpa Garden helps feed their community, while boosting their soil nutrients, improving their soil microbial diversity, and providing good winter cover as a cover crop, which improves the overall health of their soil.

Dan Boerst shows some of the generosity of the Milpa garden.

“When we saw the Milpa Garden opportunity, I first contacted Manawa Food Pantry. Now that the garden is thriving, I put in a crop of radishes and turnips last summer,” Ruth explained. “I’ve also spoken with two local child care centers who are willing to take product whenever we have it. They are also happy to receive pumpkins from us.

Milpa Gardens are known as Chaos Gardens because they are a mixture of everything.

“The garden has been a great way for Dan and Ruth to use a small portion of their land to grow food without the hassle of tilling, weeding and planning garden rows,” said Matt Brugger , manager of the Demo Farm project.

The garden has had a positive effect on the local residents of Manawa. One of the seed acres was provided to Dan free of charge with an agreement to donate the produce to the local food pantry.

“With the success of Dan and Ruth and 9 other network farms, this is something we plan to explore for other farms, as a way to expand community involvement and help feed residents. “, Raspor added.

“We love that we are growing so many beneficial plants for the pantry and many species, like sunflowers, are also beneficial for insects. We are seeing so many more butterflies and other pollinators,” added Ruth.

The Boersts also partnered with the NRCS to set up a managed rotational grazing system on 22 acres of pasture, including drafting a managed grazing plan, installing fencing and a livestock pipeline. , the realization of a plantation of fodder and biomass and a prescribed pasture.

“If you’re looking to see many different conservation practices in action that contribute to a regenerative soil health system, this is the farm to visit when they host field days,” Raspor said.

Dan and Ruth have also participated in the NRCS Conservation Stewardship Program, performing split nitrogen applications based on testing, using drift reducing nozzles to reduce pesticide drift, and performing tissue testing and analysis plants to improve nitrogen management, targeting nitrogen where it is really needed.

Farm owners Ruth and Dan Boerst check Milpa Garden's growth on their Manawa farm.

The Boersts have seen many positive impacts since implementing soil health practices on their land.

“Last fall was rainy; no one around us could remove their corn silage. Thanks to our direct seeding and cover cropping efforts, we had no problems harvesting; I didn’t even have to put the chopper in 4WD.

“Even in the spring, the planters are here first because they know they can get in without getting stuck,” Ruth said. adding that the proof is in their soil.

Dan and Ruth plan to continue their soil health efforts, while helping feed their community. They raised three children, Sarah, Dusty and Adam, on the farm and have six grandchildren. they want to keep the land healthy for future generations.

“I get up at 3:30 a.m. every morning to keep doing this, it’s my passion and that’s who I am. We want to leave all of our soil healthier than when we got it,” Dan said.

All that the Boersts continue to do for conservation gives NRCS hope that farmers can continue to make a difference locally for all of us, one bite of produce from the garden of chaos at a time.