By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Peltekos: This Earth Day, Look to Healthy Soil for Healthy Water
Patty Peltekos

It’s April, the time of year when many of us like singing in the rain,  scanning the sky and checking weather forecasts for rain. Farm and garden plants, like livestock animals and people, need fresh water to thrive, which is one reason why so many members of the South Central Wisconsin Farmers Union (SCWFU) are passionate about conserving and protecting water.

Conserving and protecting our groundwater and surface waters — the sources of our drinking water — is especially important given our fluctuating climate.

There is a  strong connection between farming — and gardening! — practices and healthy water. Healthy soils make healthy water. And healthy water makes healthy soils.


Healthy soils, especially soils anchored by deeply rooted perennials — like native plants, shrubs, and trees — and soils covered with mulches stay on the ground where we want soil to stay. Deeply rooted plants allow rainwater to percolate into and penetrate the ground, allowing the water to reach plant roots. This prevents runoff. Water that runs off the soil during a rainstorm doesn’t help the plants that depend on it, and runoff is no good for our ground waters or surface waters.

Have you ever seen dust blowing off  fields on a dry, windy day? That dust is the topsoil blowing away, most likely bound for a stream or river, like the Sugar River. Losing topsoil on a windy day or through runoff might not seem like a big deal. But it is. 

America, including Wisconsin, is losing topsoil at a much faster rate than it can be replenished. Which is a problem not just for plants and animals, farmers and eaters, but also for our natural water supplies.

All too often, topsoil that is blown or runs off carries chemical hitchhikers, especially fertilizers and pesticides. When chemical-laden topsoil ends up in a stream, river or lake, the chemicals it carries end up in the water, too.

That’s why farming practices make a huge impact on Wisconsin’s waters.

How can farming practices make a difference to water quality?

Wisconsin has long been known for the diversity of its farms. But today many dairy cows, beef cattle, goats, chickens and turkeys, and hogs spend their lives confined to huge buildings. In counties throughout Wisconsin, grazing and foraging animals who evolved to live outdoors where they can eat a varied diet and can aerate and lightly fertilize the soil, are now living in giant buildings. These facilities, known as concentrated animal feeding operations or CAFOs, pump huge amounts of water from the ground. CAFOs need all this water mostly to hose down manure from the giant structures where the livestock live. This liquid manure is stored in giant pits before it’s applied to farmland as fertilizer. Applying liquid manure as a fertilizer can easily oversaturate the ground, leading to polluted groundwaters, including the wells of rural landowners. This nutrient-rich runoff is also contributing to a “dead zone” in Green Bay. 

This is just one of the reasons why many SCWFU members raise a variety of crops and animals. These farmers frequently rotate their livestock from pasture to pasture, allowing the soil to be aerated and fertilized by their animals. These livestock animals are rebuilding the soil! Plus, many SCWFU members are planting deep-rooted perennial food gardens and prairie strips or larger prairie plantings, and they are avoiding the use of synthetic fertilizers and other ag chemicals. Crop rotations, livestock rotations, and ground covers protect and conserve soil AND protect and conserve water. In addition to helping keep water in the ground, ground covers and perennial plantings prevent water from running off. Perennial plantings have the added benefit of attracting birds, bees, and butterflies — pollinators as important for our crops as for the beauty and diversity they add to our fields and yards. Preventing runoff makes for healthy plants, healthy soil, and healthy ground and surface waters.

Buying direct from local farmers is one way you can support local soil and water conservation. Check out some of the farms listed on the Wisconsin Local Food Directory, which you can link to from Better yet, join the Wisconsin Farmers Union to meet the family farmers who live near you! This spring and summer, when you’re at farmers’ markets and farmstands, ask your farmers about the conservation practices they are using on their land. 

— Patty Peltekos loves watching the sky and the weather it brings from her home in southwestern Dane County. She never thought she’d be so wowed by the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s rainfall simulator and how it demonstrates the relationship between farming practices and water. South Central Wisconsin Farmers Union is a member-driven chapter committed to enhancing the quality of life for family farmers, rural communities, and all people through educational opportunities, cooperative endeavors, and civic engagement in Rock, Green, and Lafayette Counties.