Lower Sugar River Regenerative Agriculture District
Regenerative farmers within a larger community, engaging diverse communities and restoring/protecting the natural ecosystems & soil health.
Lead Applicant Organization Name
The Lower Sugar River Valley Regenerative Agricultural District
Lead Applicant Organization Type
Small NGO (under 50 employees)
If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.
Applied Ecological Services, Reimer Family Farms, Planetary CARE, Iroquois Valley Farm, Lower Sugar River Watershed Association.
While not directly involved in this application those organizations have been involved in all that is described and are anticipated to be involved in the future are:Wisconsin Farmers Union,
Leaders in ecosystem restoration: Green County Conservation League, The Prairie Enthusiasts,
Land protection: Southern Wisconsin land Conservancy, Green Rock Audubon Society, Driftless Area Conservancy
Website of Legally Registered Entity
How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?
Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?
Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?
United States of America
Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?
Lower Sugar River, Regenerative Agriculture District, Green county, Brodhead, WI
What country is your selected Place located in?
United States of America
Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.
The people who have come together to establish the Lower Sugar River, Regenerative Agriculture District (RAD) include several third-generation farmers and families descended from the original land grant settlers from the 1830s.
As third-generation farmers, Jen and Bryce Riemer took over management of the family farm and have shifted its practices into a fully regenerative approach. Jen Riemer is a founding member of the highly active organization known as the Soil Sisters whose members are women running farms.
Taylor Creek Restoration Nurseries (one of the largest native plant nurseries in the USA grows 800 native plant species, 5-6 million potted native plants for native landscaping, and hundreds of thousands of pounds of native species seed for land restoration, including restoring marginal soils on regenerative farms.
In addition, Steve Apfelbaum founder of Applied Ecological Services employs over 200 people across 17 offices from the east coast (Philadelphia, New York) to the midwest (e.g Chicago, Kansas City, Dubuque, Minneapolis, etc) including many locals with long familial tenure in this region.
Nearly all of the RAD founders and others who have come together are very active in conservation as members of the Lower Sugar River Watershed Association (www.LSRWA.org), Wisconsin Farmers Union, and as leaders in ecosystem restoration (Green County Conservation League, The Prairie Enthusiasts, Land protection (Southern Wisconsin land Conservancy, Green Rock Audubon Society, Driftless Area Conservancy) and many others.
Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.
A swan on the :Lower Sugar River
Envision small towns with traditional town centers in old-world rural landscapes in Switzerland and Germany melded with a midwestern farm landscape. The original Swiss and German farmers and their descendants now farm Wisconsin’s rolling landscapes that remind them of the foothills and mountain slopes of the Swiss Alps.
This is why they settled here. They brought their very frugal lifestyles and culinary arts (making cheese, beer and wine, and sausage, apple growing and cider pressing). Essential organic farming practices were very much alive here in Green County, WI.
But, this is changing.
The landownership has shifted in recent years as the good reliable labor supply, high-quality, large volume potable water and fertile soils have been targeted by Dairy Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) to produce increasing volumes of milk for cheese production. Available high volume well water has lured in Californians and Nebraskans move here to open CAFOs.
The magnificent Sugar River whose headwaters are just west of Madison, WI (75 river miles north of the RAD) traverses through this countryside, through oak savanna, floodplain forests and beneath 200-400 foot bedrock bluffs growing with rare hill prairies (e.g. Muralt Nature Preserve and others) and unique old-growth Black Maple/Red oak forest preserves such as Abraham's woods—a late 1800’s through the 1970's maple syrup production setting.
Forests are tucked into side valleys, cut into the bedrock ridges that were sheltered from winter wind, ice exposure and the historic wildfires that burned across this prairie ecosystem land.
The hard-working and industrious people reflect the bounty and the diversity of the land with an exuberance and passion for life. Their common downfall is loving the Greenbay Packers, the Univ of Wisconsin football teams, and brats, and beer.
The people in this region have a typical American diet containing more processed foods than will be necessary or sustainable in the future.
Showing the connection between diet, health, and sustainability will be one of the major goals of the Three Waters Reserve education center and other educational projects in the region.
The farmers in this region are very independent folks, resistant to fads and trends. Only a few have thus far fully converted to regenerative agriculture. A much larger community expresses interest in conservation.
Over 100 individuals including farmers have been trained in water quality sampling as WAVs (Water Action Volunteers) by the LSRWA and the Wisconsin Department of natural resources. The data they gather is being used to educate farmers about nutrient runoff and improve our management practices, moving in the direction of regenerative farming. A soon to be published report will detail 100 years of nutrient dynamics in the Sugar River using WAV and agency data.
Older residents of the region remember being able to see the bottom of the Sugar River.
The hopes of the people in this region include being able to restore the land and waters to their prior conditions that supported a greater diversity of the plants and animals that could be enjoyed by all who live here.
What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)
What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?
Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.
For decades, Lower Sugar River Valley ag has responded to economic marketing pressures without accounting for the impact of conventional ag practices on the soil, water and biodiversity.
Natural resources and human health was not on the balance sheet. Industrial ag practices applied to fewer crops, requiring expensive mechanization, seed, fertilizer and pesticides to produce greater yields to pay for the increased capitalization.
The spiral of externalities formerly not a concern have resulted in costs exceed the financial returns and a decline in the quality of life. Formerly low regional cancer rates have increased. Soil health and water supply has significantly declined.
Over the last decade, the Sugar River has shown a steady increase in phosphorus, nitrogen, suspended solids, and turbidity levels and larger volumes of runoff.
The diversity of plant life in the region, both wild and cultivated, has perilously declined. New non-native, invasive plants have increased and outcompete native species for available sunlight, water, and nutrients. The populations of desirable pollinator insects have precipitously declined, creating additional farmer expense and loss of crop resilience.
Most food is produced outside the region and shipped in. Most food consumers in the region lack diverse, accessible sources of healthy food.
As conventional farming profit margins decreased, bankruptcies have increased. Agricultural and non-agricultural jobs in the region are insufficient to keep young adults from moving away to pursue careers in more promising and more urban locations.
As the tax base has declined, regional governments lack resources to maintain environmental or social infrastructure.
A significant portion of the existing local farmer population is nearing retirement without relatives interested in continuing the farms. The motivated potential buyers of these farms want to deploy factory farming practices. These investments, if allowed, will produce additional environmental stress while only marginally creating jobs.
Aging farmers are not currently taking advantage of newer green technologies related to farming (such as drones, satellite scanning, and sensors) because they lack the motivation to learn how to use them and financial resources and borrowing power to make those investments.
State and local policies governing the use of land and water resources, including the acceptable practices for handling plant and animal waste, do not currently address the significant changes necessary to transition the region to environmental responsibility.
All of these challenges have developed over the last few decades and are clearly evident in 2020. Without significant changes in the entire food system including land, water, farming practices, finance, marketing, and community engagement, the challenges will intensify.
Additional challenges will come from the rising average temperatures, more erratic rainfall, more invasive plants and insects, and greater stress on the human population in the region caused by climate change. These stresses will increase even if heroic measures to lessen GHG emissions are implemented nationally and internationally.
Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.
Members of the community are researching, advocating and practicing a wide range of actions to meet the challenges to our food system.
Public-private partnerships with Citizen Scientists gather and analyze data relevant to farmer economic success. That data is shared with farmers in the LSR-RAD and beyond. The LSRWA and partners are working with North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education to correlate land management to soil health, water quality (nutrient loss) and crop nutrition.
Studies apply the data to compare input costs and profitability. Farmer-led studies compare soil microbial community structure, soil chemical, and physical properties and crop nutrition in conventional and regenerative agricultural fields.
Local conservation partners and donors have acquired a 150-acre former golf course in the watershed to demonstrate ecosystem restoration and regenerative agriculture.
A 57-acre portion is now known as Three Waters Reserve and will be the home of LSRWA’s new Watershed Science Center and Field Station.
The Center’s foundational goal is instilling watershed literacy to empower all citizens to support healthy watershed functions, sustainable food systems and quality of life. The programming at the Center/Field Station will be organized within four focus areas of Scientific Research, Citizen Science, Education, and Training.
The broad themes of Ecology, Economy, and Culture including the topics of soil health and regenerative agriculture are covered.
The Three Waters Reserve, Watershed Science Center, and Field Station, LSRWA and partners promote awareness and empowerment via its annual Watershed Summit, public forums, workshops, field days, and outreach to all citizens and to public and private organizations and institutions.
Funding to transfer farms owned by retiring farmers for conversion to regenerative agriculture is being explored. These practices should greatly increase the diversity of soil bacteria and nutrients and stabilize topsoil, reducing runoff.
Some of the runoff from the healthy soil improves water quality by adding a balanced mix of minerals and biota to water sources. Conservation practices improve water availability, quality and increase biodiversity and increase the growth of propagating insects.
By commercializing ClimateFoods™, native perennial prairie plant grasses, we are creating related food ingredients and products. By growing more healthy food locally and increasing the percentage of food crops consumed locally, we will have a positive impact on the health of our population.
Using these methods will increase farmer profitability and sustainability largely through the reduction of costs and increased crop resilience.
Building a healthy local food system is an opportunity to further engage local residents in a cooperative and productive fashion independent of otherwise divisive issues. Our approach provides a path for younger residents to do exciting work while staying local.
High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.
By 2050, the Lower Sugar River Regenerative Agriculture District will be carbon negative and will have restored the land and waters of the region to healthy diversity. The health and employment prospects of local citizens, including farmers and non-farmers, will be substantially improved.
Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?
From WI DNR - Lower Sugar River master plan
Recently, local news media ran a feature on the amazing changes that have taken place in our region. Over the last 30 years, an inspiring transformation occurred in the southern Wisconsin area known as Lower Sugar River Valley Regenerative Agricultural District (RAD). Despite the unavoidable effects of climate change, the Food System of the RAD has transformed its citizens and food consumers within hundreds of miles of its location. It accomplished this while helping to relieve some of the disruptions forced upon us by climate change.
There are now 100,000 acres of the region farmed using regenerative methods.
Regenerative dairy operations producing milk, cheese, and other products have been taken to scale. Over 50 good crops are grown and over 800 pollinator trees, plants and shrubs are grown. There has been a resurgence of farm-related secondary industries from enhanced farm manure management to the manufacture of local biotic fertilizers.
Most citizens in the Lower Sugar River Regenerative Agriculture District are engaged in selecting, planting, harvesting, transporting, retailing, cooking and/or sharing the locally produced food they eat. They now understand how they live in a complex food system and how it is part of the larger overall ecology of the region, the country and ultimately, the world.
People of all ages, and especially school children, are regularly engaged in following the growth of local crops but also in monitoring wildlife, water levels, water quality, air quality, and energy production. They follow these measures directly by hiking over nature trails and running citizen data monitoring applications developed for their phones. The data is presented through colorful graphics and animated characters.
Citizens, especially children, are not passive consumers of this information as abstract data but are regularly engaged both in and out of school with the real-world placement and calibration of sensors that support a rich local transparent shared data network.
Children begin drawing simple food webs in elementary school and move on in junior high and high school to interactive diagrams that display historic and live data from the local food system, integrating local data with real-time updates of satellite images. All schools in the region have gardens that supply substantial portions of the food used for school lunches.
To preserve the privacy and competitiveness of some farmers and landowners, some data has been separated and requires permission to access, but there are many educational and community agriculture plots that are open source and watched on the internet by interested citizens from around the world.
The Three Waters Reserve has expanded its role as an education center, acting as a steward and host for evolving virtual and augmented reality programming that re-integrates abstract, quantitative metrics.
Wearing standard consumer VR/AR goggles, observers get to see the operations of the food system with the real-world images of current and recent activity. Teenagers monitor plant growth, bird migration, insect populations, and water levels and quality with as much fervor as they used to apply to social media likes.
Classes and social clubs have taken on responsibility for monitoring and acting as caretakers for different parts of the food and natural systems that surround them.
The water quality in the Sugar River has returned to levels not seen since the 1950's.
Fish and other aquatic life are abundant. Combinations of smart drip irrigation and greywater reuse technologies have lowered the amount of fresh water needed to produce a healthy mixed plant and animal product diet for all residents as well as consumers in adjacent urban areas.
Unlike the rest of the nation, the diets of people living in the Lower Sugar River Valley and those in the larger urban markets served by the region have shifted to locally grown, processed and made food.
Nationally, most families have substituted chicken and vegetable protein including carefully crafted meat and fish alternatives such as cell-based beef, chicken, and fish, for conventional animal-based food in many of their meals. The motivation for these changes came more from the creation and effective marketing of tasty and more economical alternatives than through shaming because of the environmental impact of conventional and processed meat and other food products.
The Lower Sugar River Regenerative Agriculture District beat several Wisconsin communities by achieving the state goal of becoming carbon neutral before 2050. Due to the highly accurate measures from breakthrough sensors, we now know that the carbon held in the soil has been one of the most important reasons the area was successful in becoming carbon negative sequestering more carbon than all human activity releases into the atmosphere. We also see a mix of hybrid and fully electric cars, trucks, and farm equipment as they charge their batteries from local and remote green energy sources.
How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?
OpenIdeo and email forwarded by a friend both on 12/5.