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  • Jim Chamberlin

Grazing Update for the Pine River Watershed

Jim Chamberlin is a long-time member of the Pine River Watershed Alliance. Below is his most recent update on grazing initiatives. The PRWA’s goal is to provide leadership at the local level for the prudent use and conservation of water, soil, and associated resources in the watershed.

Work continues in the Pine River Watershed to support agriculture that not only protects and restores soil health, but also contributes clean air, water, and food to our community. Soil health is defined as the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem. Healthy soil purifies water and creates soil fertility that stays in the soil profile, instead of leaching into ground water and downstream waterways.

With some sub watersheds of the Pine River Watershed dominated by pastureland, livestock are often blamed for water quality issues. However, when grazing ruminants are managed on pasture using adaptive grazing principles they serve as the biological driver of soil health, increasing water infiltration and holding capacity in the soil profile. [Editor’s note: You can find a great encapsulation of the benefits of adaptive grazing, which we like to call “Cows for Clean Water” here.]

A discussion first started over twenty years ago between water quality advocates, led by Jack Wallschlaeger, and upstream farmers and ranchers continues to reap benefits. Last summer over thirty people gathered to tour three farms in the Pine River Watershed and see grazing and cover crop practices that support soil health being implemented through One Watershed One Plan. These field days created opportunities for farmer-to-farmer networking around these practices, and exposed nonfarmers to the challenges farmers and ranchers face in implementing them.

The Pine River Watershed is one of five learning hubs with the University of Wisconsin’s Grassland 2.0 project, an effort to envision and reshaped Midwest agriculture in the image of our native prairies and savannas. Grassland 2.0 representatives attended the Whitefish Area Property Owners meeting last summer and gave a brief report on the project and the value of healthy soil. Over the winter, Grassland 2.0 staff conducted over two dozen interviews with local citizens from all walks of life, to develop a rich picture of the current and desired future condition of agriculture.

Five men sitting in a circle
Grassland 2.0 Annual Gathering held in Spring Green Wisconsin, bringing together University researchers and extension, and members of the five regional learning hubs.

A community meeting will be held June 3rd to share what was heard from community members and affirm the rich picture developed through the interview process.

Market driven conservation can be a long-term solution to water quality issues when it comes to agriculture. Food grown from healthy soil is higher in nutrient density and contains more compounds that benefit health. Practices that support soil health are more diverse and support a broader range of pollinators and wildlife. Healthy soil infiltrates and purifies more water; holding it in the soil profile for future use by plants, releasing it to groundwater to recharge aquifers, or transport it horizontally through the soil profile, slowly releasing it to wetlands and surface waters. Supporting agriculture that builds soil health with your food dollars is imperative.

A colored map showing the Pine River Watershed
Land cover map of the Pine River Watershed (Source: 1W1P)

To make this easier for area residents, we are working to rebuild local supply chains. Up the Creek Meats is a partnership with the MN Lakes and Rivers Advocates to connect lakeshore owners with upstream producers who are working to protect water quality. This is a great way to know your farmer. On a larger scale, we are working to develop a branded retail ground beef product for distribution to retailers. Opportunities to support this effort as a consumer will be upcoming.

We often hear about the importance of having well managed forests and that if 75% of a watershed is forested, we will have clean water. What the data shows is that if we develop 25% of a watershed without implementing best management practices, water quality standards will not be met.

We will not have 75% of the Pine River Watershed forested again, but it doesn’t have to be. We have the knowledge and farming methods to grow our food in ways that are restorative, we just need the will. Agriculture done poorly leads to a degraded environment, rural decline, and poor human health. Agriculture, done well, heals the land, our water, and our communities.


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