December 6, 2018

Show Non-Farming Neighbors You Care

 |  By: Dairy Talk

As the Christmas season approaches, now is the perfect time to reach out to neighbors to let them know you appreciate their presence in the community.


Stopping by and giving them a small gift—like a plate of cookies--gives you the opportunity to greet long-time residents and maybe for the first time meet those who have recently moved to your area.


Don Niles, who milks about 3,000 cows in Kewaunee County in northeast Wisconsin, delivers some 900 cookies his wife bakes each December to neighbors. Dropping off the cookies shows these folks he cares, and gives him the opportunity to see how things are going.


Often, he says, neighbors have no complaints. But occasionally they’ll mention that manure was spread on a nearby field on a weekend they were having a party or that trucks from the dairy are speeding by when their kids are out playing. “I can hand them a postcard to send to me if they’re planning another party so we don’t spread manure that day, or I can tell my truckers or contractors to watch their speed,” he says.


It’s just a simple way to make a connection, he says, and have neighbors get to know you as real person and human being. The thing farmers have to remember is that the communities in which they now operate often are quite different from 10, 20 or 30 years ago. Back then, farms dotted the landscape and most of the people living in the country who weren’t farming were either retired farmers or relatives of farmers. That’s not the case anymore.  


Today, often as not, rural communities are populated by folks who have little or no connection to farming, and are living there because they love the peace and quiet of the rural countryside. And farmers, being as busy as they are, simply don’t bother making connections. “We got so busy that the 1% of us left farming lost touch with the 99% who aren’t,” says Niles.


“Until our neighbors understand what we do, why we do it and why we care, they can be led to believe we’re a caricature of evil,” he says.


That’s a hard lesson. But it was driven home to Niles and fellow Kewaunee neighbors several years ago when a rural resident posted a picture on the internet of his bathtub full of brown water that had come straight from the tap. These “brown water” events can occasionally occur in the county, especially in spring or after a heavy rain.


The problem is that soil in some areas of the county is only a foot or two deep, and most of the county is underlain by the Silvurian dolomite aquifer. The bedrock is fractured limestone, and heavy rain or snow melt can flush liquid manure through the fissures in a matter of days, if not hours. The result can be a “brown water” event.


A committed group of local activists used such a “brown water” event to attack large CAFO dairies in the county. Note: At 101 cows per square mile, Kewaunee is second only to Lancaster, Penn., as the most cow-dense county east of the Mississippi. The activists made a lot of noise and got noticed by the Milwaukee Journal and even the New York Times. “But they weren’t necessarily wrong. Brown water events are not acceptable,” says Niles.


Long story short, Niles and 45 other dairy farmers in Kewaunee and Door Counties formed Peninsula Pride Farms, a non-profit group dedicated to finding solutions to the brown water problem. The group is now in its third year.


Farms in the group have agreed to share what works and what doesn’t work to prevent both surface runoff and groundwater contamination. “We’re asking for continuous improvement, and not just trying something for a year,” he says. “And it’s working”

The group is showing residents that farmers are responsible neighbors and land stewards. Cookies at Christmas are a great way to connect with neighbors. Actively seeking and implementing solutions demonstrates how committed farmers are to make the area safe for all.