Willie and Candice Hughes

Rock County farmer, Willie Hughes, is keenly aware of his role in preserving and protecting local water resources. Farming some of the most fertile soils in the world, he looks at the management of his family’s diversified grain farm from a holistic perspective. Modern conservation practices, including cover crops that are planted mainly for their environmental benefits, are exciting changes in farming today that improve soil health and keep water clean.

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Meet the farmer

The Hughes family has been farming in Rock County for as long as Wisconsin has been a state, 1848. That kind of longevity doesn’t come without innovation and change. As part of the current generation to farm, Willie is building on the best of the past combined with today’s science and technology to care for the land and one of our most important shared resources – water.

Soil health is planetary health. It’s where almost all our food begins. When Willie thinks about soil health, he has a global view with a hands-on focus. Each farm field and the soils in it are a living organism which have to be nurtured. Healthy soils are those rich in organic matter, have the capacity to hold water after it rains and provide nutrients to growing crops. That’s important to Willie and his neighbors as he keeps fertilizer in his fields and out of local waterways.

Any time you have bare soil you risk wind erosion, water erosion and soil loss. Cover crops are crops grown primarily for their environmental impact and are typically planted in fall, so they germinate and then go dormant over the winter. They act as a blanket for the soil and protect it over winter by putting down roots, grabbing onto the soil, and keeping it in the fields. By using cover crops, Willie sees improved soil health, uses less fertilizer and makes fewer trips across the field with equipment.

For Willie, sustainability means resilience. It's the ability for his farm to withstand unexpected changes, varying weather conditions and the ability for it to sustain itself long term. He believes previous generations would be in awe of the insights farmers have today, the ability to track data and farm management strategies and how they play out to make informed decisions to protect resources like land and water.

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Willie’s excitement for farming today is pretty contagious. As a young farmer he’s eager to learn what’s next and how he can personally improve water resources for his family and his community. Follow along as we explore other Wisconsin corn farmers’ stories.