One of the biggest, broadest questions in the Discovery Farms Program is the following: If water quality needs to be improved, what are the best things we can do in land management to make it better?
Obviously, the answers have to fit within the resources of the farms, in terms of time and energy. The best and broadest science should be applied to make recommendations to improve water quality, so the recommendations have the best possible chance of being effective, long-term solutions.
One problem with accomplishing the goal of improved water quality has been the barriers between scientific disciplines. A water scientist may know almost nothing about soils, agriculture, or urban landscapes. A scientist studying landscapes may not be aware of what''s important in the lake or stream. The ecologist may know a lot about the native plants along the stream, but little about the water or the soil. Since each scientist is usually rewarded for being a specialist in a narrow field, putting land and water and ecology together in a meaningful way often has a low priority.
Discovery Farms is a producer-driven program, working with privately owned farms to do environmental research. The goal of Discovery Farms'' research is to find the most cost-effective ways for producers to reduce their farms'' impact on the environment. This research includes documenting a farm''s environmental impact before changes are made, so an environmental practice''s effectiveness can be measured.
The Discovery Farms Program has a chance to put the farmer, the water scientist, the land scientist, the ecologist, and economist together to understand and improve the farming operation. First, Discovery Farms wants them all to "get their stories straight," to be consistent across the landscape. For example, if the soil scientist says each field is releasing a certain amount of sediment, and all that sediment can be added together for a watershed - is that how much sediment the water scientist ends up measuring in the stream? If the water scientist says a producer need to cut phosphorus inputs in half to make the water system healthy, and the producer does that, does the water quality system actually become healthier?
With several of the Discovery Farms the opportunity exists to see how well predictions work at various scales - plots, fields, small watersheds, and larger watersheds.
For soil loss, Discovery Farms will measure how much sediment comes out of a watershed. Soil loss equations will be run on the fields in the watershed, to see how close the predictions come to the amount that''s actually measured in the stream. If it doesn''t work, Discovery Farms will look at the systems closely to see where ideas don''t match reality, and fix those assumptions.
The same goes for the Phosphorus Risk Index. If Discovery Farms is going to spend time and money improving farm management to decrease phosphorus losses, it should determine the most cost-effective changes to make. The Phosphorus Risk Index is set up to rank fields based on the risk of phosphorus delivery from the field into surface waters, so it''s known where potential problems exist.
Discovery Farms will determine the Phosphorus Risk Index on all fields in several small watersheds, and compare those predictions with the total amounts of phosphorus that are measured in the streams draining these watersheds. If the estimates don''t match up with reality, we look carefully at all our assumptions, see which are wrong, and put them back together so it works. Discovery Farms researchers hope to find methods that actually make the farmer more money while lowering the risk of phosphorus losses.
Discovery Farms will also be looking at groundwater/surface water interactions. This is especially important for nitrate in groundwater, because eventually that nitrate almost always gets into surface water, somewhere. This type of study requires interactions among soil scientists, groundwater hydrologists, and surface water scientists, among others.
Putting together a productive group of experts to answer land-water questions is not easy. While scientists and agencies have spent a lot of time studying the pieces of the land/water connection, and speculating about how they fit together, they usually only really consider the pieces they think they know best. The network of Discovery Farms gives a chance to look at whole systems, take them apart and put them together again scientifically, then look at the implications for economics and management. It''s a pretty rare opportunity that should appeal to farmers, scientists, agencies, and the public, because it can help all of them do their jobs better.
The Discovery Farms Program is part of the Wisconsin Agriculture Stewardship Initiative, which also includes the University of Wisconsin-Platteville''s Pioneer Farm, adaptive research on individual Discovery Farms, and component research conducted at UW institutions. The Discovery Farms Program is in partnership with and may receive funding, support and/or services through UW-Extension, UW-Madison, UW-Stevens Point, UW-River Falls, DATCP, DNR, NRCS, USGS, ag industry organizations (such as WMMB, PDPW and WPPA), county Land Conservation Departments and county Extension offices. For more information on Discovery Farms, call (715) 983-5668 or go here.