Everything on Joe Bragger’s Buffalo County farm is connected and has a purpose: The cows and the chickens, the trout and the trees, the soil and the stream. He not only loves the land, but clearly sees what it can do for him and what he can do for it.
It’s for his land ethic and outstanding voluntary conservation efforts that Bragger will receive the 2011 Wisconsin Leopold Conservation Award.
Named in honor of famed conservationist Aldo Leopold, the award recognizes those who inspire other landowners by example and help the general public understand the vital role that private landowners can and do play in conservation success.
“The Bragger family uses the tools available to all farmers to prevent soil erosion and enhance water quality, developing their farm into a conserving showcase,” said Brent Haglund, Sand County Foundation President. “In nearby terrain during the Great Depression, Aldo Leopold encouraged farmers in Coon Valley to manage their land to beat erosion. The Braggers show that by beating erosion in a number of smart ways, a determined farm family can keep their farm, their community, and their watershed healthier and more profitable.”
Already given in seven other states, last year the Madison-based Sand County Foundation teamed up with the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation to bring the award to Wisconsin. For the win, Joe Bragger will receive a $10,000 cash award and an Aldo Leopold crystal at a special recognition event in Buffalo County this summer. The call for nominations for the 2012 award has already begun.
It was in the late 1960s that Bragger’s parents (Swiss immigrants) founded Bragger Family Dairy near the community of Independence. The terrain reminded them of their scenic homeland. Joe likes to say he wishes they had come from the Ukraine so the farm would be flatter and less challenging to farm.
Yet, with his knack for hard work and creativity, Bragger seems to relish the challenge. The traditional Wisconsin dairy farm has evolved and diversified over time to best utilize its differing landscape.
Joe and his younger brother, Dan, have a partnership that spans 500 acres of crops (a combination of no-till and tilled land), a milking string of 305 dairy cows and a herd of 50 beef cattle.
Joe’s wife, Noel, manages the family’s poultry operation that consists of raising 64,000 pullets annually in a climate-controlled two-story barn for Gold’n Plump. The poultry litter is an economical alternative to spreading liquid dairy manure on the farm’s steep slopes. In addition to the poultry operation, Noel teaches kindergarten through second grade at St. Boniface School in Waumandee.
The Braggers raise 4,000 brown trout annually in a spring-fed pond on their farm in partnership with the local Elk Rod & Gun Club and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. The young trout (called fingerlins) are put into the pond each May and removed the following April to be released into area streams. The pond doubles as a stock tank for some of the farm’s cattle.
Adding to the farm’s diversity, Bragger enjoys experimenting with numerous crops like canola, sunflowers and a variety of alfalfa and barley types. He is also passionate about experimenting with 150 acres of woodland areas that he manages for wildlife, recreation and timber-pulp production. For the past six years, parts of the forests that are less desirable for timber production are burned off to maintain native grasses, goat-prairie and oak savanna areas. Locals like watching and learning from this natural process annually.
“We are always looking at if we can make this farm worthwhile for the next generation,” Bragger said, specifically thinking about his four children: Rosli, 16, John, 14, Tessa, 13, and Allison, 11.
“So we will continue to use every bit of the farm we can, try to do it in a way that makes it sustainable and use things to their potential,” he said.
He met the program’s director, Dennis Frame, at Wisconsin Farm Bureau’s Annual Meeting. As part of the first group of farms enrolled in the on-farm research project, the eight-year experience helped Bragger develop monitoring measures that determine environmental and economical effects of best management practices. One of them is greater residue management. He said that leaving more residue helps him do a better job of harvesting rainfall for use of their crops. He estimates that 98 percent of the rainfall that hits the farm is now absorbed for crop production and ground water recharge.
The Discovery Farms Program graduate now serves as Pioneer Farms Discovery Farms Joint Steering Committee Chairman. In addition he has been actively involved with the Wisconsin Soybean Association, Buffalo County Land and Water Resource Planning Committee, Town of Montana Board of Supervisors and Land-Use Committee, Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin, Upper-Mississippi River Hypoxia Committee, and Saints Peter & Paul Parish Education Committee. Bragger has hosted workers from four other continents to learn and work on his farm through the Communications for Ag and Global Cow programs.
Finding his voice through Farm Bureau
Bragger admits he likes a whirlwind of activity on his farm and the many committees and organizations he’s involved with off the farm. He says they collectively aid him in his new role on the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation’s Board of Directors.
This past December (after he was selected for the Leopold Conservation Award) he was elected to represent the seven counties (Buffalo, Eau Claire, Jackson, La Crosse, Monroe, Pepin and Trempealeau) that make up Farm Bureau’s District 4.
He says he’s committed to his counties and when ag-related issues arise, he feels compelled to call each county president to get their input before Farm Bureau board meetings.
“Joe clearly holds a high standard of commitment to Farm Bureau, to conservation efforts and to his farming operation,” said Bill Bruins, Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation President.
“Farm Bureau gave me a voice so I could speak but further, Farm Bureau teaches us how to be a voice for ourselves,” said Bragger, who has been active with the Buffalo County Farm Bureau for the past 17 years. “One of the most important things we can do in Farm Bureau is to get information into the hands of the producers so they can speak up and let legislators know how it affects them on their farm personally.”
Bragger credits much of his Farm Bureau knowledge and personal development to the late Gary Steiner who served District 4 on the state board of directors from 1991 until his passing last year.
“Gary was a real inspiration. His wisdom and humor will not be easily replicated,” Bragger said.
Shortly after Gary Steiner passed away, his daughter sent Bragger a letter saying, “He has been working on you for a long time, now go do it.” She also included one of Gary’s ties for him to go get the work done.
Bragger has quickly identified himself as a strong voice for farmers in west-central Wisconsin. With his recent selection as the first winner of the Leopold Conservation Award, something tells us Gary would be proud.
Story by Sheri Sutton. Original version appeared in the April/May 2011 issue of Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation’s Rural Route.