A friend's phone displayed the radar image five minutes before the August 27 field day of Iowa County's Uplands Farmer-Led Watershed group. The major thunderstorm appeared to be centered right above Joe Stapleton's farm outside of Spring Green, and sure enough, the skies opened a minute before 9:00, with thunder and lightning added in.
Twenty minutes later, we were glad we hadn't canceled, when the rain slowed, then stopped. Pickups that had waited, pulled up, and more and more farmers joined the crowd. We had hoped for 40 farmers, yet over 50 were in attendance, including several who were new to the group from an adjacent watershed, which Uplands is expanding its boundaries to include.
After the skies cleared, we walked to a soil pit, dug in one of Joe's alfalfa fields. In 2012, Joe began no-tilling on his 500 acre farm. "I took to heart that when you lose soil, you can't get it back. You can't rent it. You can't buy it. It's gone forever." Despite his misgivings about digging a soil pit in the middle of his productive farmland, he was curious to see if his no-tilling showed results.
Sure enough, Jamie Patton, a soil scientist with UW Extension Nutrient and Pest Management Program, stood in the soil pit and showed how the organic matter was building up. The soil structure was re-forming, earthworms and roots were holding soil and increasing water infiltration, and the plow-pan of years gone by was dissipating.
Two years ago, Iowa County's Conservation Department purchased a rainfall simulator, and the first time we tried to use it, we had a howling rainstorm. Notwithstanding the irony of intentionally dousing soil samples, after the downpour that started this year's field day, the Department staff ran it for an appreciative crowd that witnessed again the powerful role that pasture and other soil-health practices can play in holding water and reducing runoff. Our partner in this event, Kevin Erb, with UW Extension, provided valuable soil health test kits for each participating farm, which he and several others helped farmers experiment in using.
And of course, it never hurts to finish an event with good food, which is exactly what we did. We were pleased to offer brats, hot dogs, cheddar scones, chocolate cookies, and grilled sweet corn, produced from fields right within the watershed. We also had shrimp from the fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico, whose livelihoods depend on the quality - and quantity - of the water we send down to them. Hurricane Ida hit their fishing community with its full intensity just the day after our event, destroying businesses and upending their lives; we are holding them all in our thoughts.