ARKANSAW and GAYS MILLS, Wis. – A conversation with a birder years ago inspired Sally Farrar to begin her journey in conservation. Farrar was raised in the northeastern corner of South Dakota where acres of native prairies attract a diversity of birds. When she moved to Wisconsin’s Pepin County and bought some land, she wanted to recreate that type of ecosystem. She will share what she learned in that endeavor in her role as a coach for Wisconsin Women in Conservation.
Wisconsin Women in Conservation is a new statewide collaborative effort that’s bringing together seasoned conservationists with women farmers and landowners – landowners interested in learning more about conservation practices, resources and funding opportunities. The effort is led by the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute in partnership with Renewing the Countryside, the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, and the Wisconsin Farmers Union.
About 15 conservation coaches from across the state are available to share their experiences in pollinator and prairie habitat as well as grazing and sustainable dairy practices. Some of the coaches also will speak during Wisconsin Women in Conservation’s virtual Conservation Summer Camp Lunch Series.
Farrar established her prairie in 2013 and began pollinator planting in 2020. She’ll host Aug. 14 an on-farm tour.
“I was inspired by diversity,” she said. “And I wanted to know how I could provide it. I want to be part of an effort to maintain and support biodiversity and a healthy functioning ecosystem, so wildlife species don’t become a distant memory. Supporting and learning from women knowledgeable in various areas of conservation also is an incredible opportunity.”
When she was just starting her prairie-restoration project she worked with Dennis Reimers, a soil-conservation technician for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service office in Pepin County. From him she learned about plant species best suited to her rich clay soil.
The agency generally recommends a minimum of 15 species that are well-suited to one’s particular soil type and expected moisture level, Reimers said. It also looks for at least three species that bloom early in the season, three species that bloom in the middle of the season and another minimum of three species that bloom late in the season.
Farrar also sought recommendations from others who had experience with pollinator and prairie habitats. From Harriet Behar of Sweet Springs Farm near Gays Mills she learned how to start a prairie planting without needing to use an herbicide to create a weed-free seedbed. Behar is serving as a conservation coach for Wisconsin Women in Conservation.
“Harriet is an amazing person, and her experience is vast in conservation and organic-farming practices,” Farrar said.
Behar has grown organic vegetables since the 1970s; she was an independent organic inspector for about 25 years. She also served as an organic specialist for the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service.
Behar shared with Farrar how she established an acre of prairie habitat without first using an herbicide. In a field that had been planted to vegetable crops, Behar did a fall planting of cereal ryegrass. The following spring in early May she disked the rye. At that point it was 8 to 10 inches tall. It quickly died, enabling her to then plant oats and peas.
In mid- to late-June she tilled the field; in the first week of July she drilled in soybean seed. With warm weather and good moisture, the soybeans quickly provided a canopy. In mid-September she mowed off the soybeans; she then hand-broadcast and pressed in seed of prairie species.
“Underneath was a weed-free and firm seedbed so the prairie plants were able to thrive with little competition from non-native plants,” she said.
Behar said she uses nature’s tools. Expecting cabbage worms to damage her cabbage crop, she planted buckwheat as habitat for predator wasps. When the worms started to damage the cabbage she mowed the buckwheat, driving the wasps to leave their buckwheat home. They fed on the cabbage worms instead.
“Using nature’s tools, I had an army of wasps working to my will and I didn’t have to spray,” she said.
In addition to sharing practices such as those, Behar, Farrar and the other conservation coaches can help Wisconsin Women in Conservation participants find resources to help them start, troubleshoot or expand their conservation projects.
Lynn Grooms writes about the diversity of agriculture, including the industry’s newest ideas, research and technologies as a staff reporter for Agri-View based in Wisconsin.