For more 30 years biologist Dave Vetrano turned his energies toward improving streams and fish populations in Wisconsin’s west central region. Now he grazes and direct-markets jersey steers from his farm near Bangor, Wisconsin and is a passionate advocate for grazing.
This change in direction is not retirement. Vetrano is building a business and seizing the chance to live what he learned while adding 400 miles to the region’s classified trout waters and reintroducing native brook trout.
“It started with enhancing trout streams,” says Vetrano. “Now it’s more; it’s about land use.”
TEAMWORK AND WHOLE THINKING
The West Allis, Wisconsin native once called a ‘rogue biologist who got results’ is not afraid to try things and has naturally drawn in farmers, landowners, local organizations, and experts through the years to share the work of restoring streams and keeping soil where it helps farmers.
“You can farm on a stream system and not have it be detrimental,” he says, “but we need to look at the system as a whole.”
Vetrano witnessed systemic change early in his career, a change that positively altered stream conditions.
“After the 1985 Farm Bill, funds to farmers required cross-compliance and a conservation plan,” he explains. “Within five years we saw an increase in stream base flow, colder stream temperatures, and for the first time, an increase in natural reproduction of native fish. It was a region-wide effect. By the end of the decade there were a number of streams we didn’t have to stock any more.”
The reason, he says, was widespread adoption of both perennial cover on the land and practices that prevent erosion.
“Conditions reversed with seven-dollar corn,” says Vetrano. “Social, economic, environmental, and political aspects of life can’t be separated from this work, because each affects the other. Spending all kinds of time and money on farm programs and stream restoration without considering the watershed as a whole system does not work.”
GRAZING FOR INCOME AND HEALTHY SYSTEMS
This view and passionate love for the land and people drives Vetrano’s current work and influenced his entry to farming.
“Managed grazing,” he says, “makes profitable use of perennialized land and is a natural way to sustain fertility. Farmers and non-farmers who are learning can get into it without spending a lot of money, and without reinventing the wheel. Ongoing inputs are low, and forage production is high.
“Graziers are sometimes looked at as quaint, but grazing is a good way to profit from farming and improve soil, water quality, and stream base flow at the same time. It’s a way to keep agriculture sustainable.”
Along with managing his own operation, Vetrano now serves as a director for organizations including the School for Beginning Dairy and Livestock Farmers (UW-Madison), Grassworks, and the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship program. He hosts pasture walks in the region, typically organized and promoted by Grassworks, Wallace Pasture Project, or Land Stewardship Project. He credits these groups and others across the Midwest for working with diverse partners and bringing all with a stake to the table.
ACTION WHERE WE LIVE
“If you look around, lots is happening,” says Vetrano. It starts with an individual who sees an issue and wants to do something about it. Here, Valley Stewardship Network was started when the La Farge dam project failed years ago, and has spawned a collaboration for farms and streams that just keeps expanding. Organic Valley was started by six hippies 25 years ago and has morphed into a business on track to earn $1 billion this year. Conservation strategies can be profitable!”
In his own work Vetrano found more, better work gets done when partners with diverse skills share the load.
“A few years ago we did a big restoration project at the Neprud farm near Coon Valley and invited in people with all kinds of expertise. I pointed them in the right direction and some, like herpetologist Bob Hay, were like kids at Christmas. We built trust and had fun. A single person’s work makes a difference, but when many get involved whole systems improve.”