Farms Turning Wild
Can crops and livestock share space with wild things? "Yes," say farmers who are working wildlife into their everyday operations and year-end profits.
By Mark Herwig
The endless prairie that once flourished in central North America was plowed under long ago and planted to grain by frontier farmers eager to make a living in their new homeland.
Todays farmers are still working hard to survive on this land, but they are increasingly trying to make a living with new "crops"enterprises that in many cases also provide valuable wildlife habitat. Ironically, some are forsaking the corn of their forefathers and replanting, of all things, the prairie grasses previous generations labored to plow under.
Dale Aden, who owns 340 acres near Okabena, is one of those new farmers. Two years ago he converted 35 acres of corn to indiangrass and big bluestem, both native to Minnesotas historic prairies. He harvests the seeds from the tops of the grasses, leaving the stems, which are 5 to 7 feet high. Aden sells the seed to a prairie restoration company for about $10 a pound.
The grass stems, which grow thick and dense, are sturdy enough to stand up to Minnesotas heavy snowfalls, providing winter shelter for pheasants and other wildlife. In spring the durable dried stalks are still standing and provide nesting cover for many grassland birds. Unlike corn or soybean fields, which are typically plowed bare come fall, Adens prairie grasses remain year-round. Their roots hold the soil, reducing soil erosion and siltation of nearby lakes and streams.
"It pays out pretty well," Aden said. "And its great pheasant habitat. Thats one reason why I put it in thereI wanted more habitat for wildlife." Aden donated several hunts on the land to a local group for a conservation fund-raiser. The field was also the setting last fall for a pheasant hunt on a regional television program.
"I can walk out the back door with my yellow lab and hunt the field. I saw 75 pheasants fly out of it last week. It was really great to see," Aden said. "That is the benefit of good habitat. It takes a lot of work, but its worth it."
Trouble in farm country. Aden and many other farmers have switched crops because they realize the traditional corn-soybean rotation is becoming less sustainable economically and environmentally.
Indeed, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports some conventional farmers are struggling. The agency said the current farm recession is entering its fifth year and real net farm cash income is at its lowest since the Great Depression. The 2001 harvest saw the sharpest drop in crop prices since 1909, and the costs of producing those crops are at an all-time high. Nationally, the USDA reported that farm debt in terms of real estate and operations rose more rapidly in the past two years than at any time since 1984.
An editorial in the Des Moines Register last winter spelled out the difficulty in making a living on family farms, despite government subsidies on major crops: "Farm programs pour lots of cash into the Iowa economy, but they may work a little like slow poison.... Crop subsidies tend to speed the demise of the family farm because the bulk of the payments go to the biggest farmers.... Moreover, farmers tend to be locked into producing the program crops, so the diversification of agriculture that could help rural areas is discouraged."
Nonetheless, some farmers are striking out on their own and seeking new opportunities for farm income. And some are finding there is money to be made in conservation.
Soybeans for wildlife
One of these farmers is Tony Thompson of Windom. Thompson, who is always experimenting with new farming techniques, calls one new approach a "temporary wildlife refuge in a cropping system." Thompson practices wildlife-friendly farming on his 1,800 acres, particularly in his soybean fields. He used to plow the beans under in the fall and make two additional passes in the spring for fertilizer, herbicides, and seed.
But Thompson and his neighbors now use a combination of high-residue management (leaving cornstalks and other plant material on the ground instead of plowing it under), ridge-till, and strip-till, as well as the newest weed-control techniques, to leave more room for wildlife. Ridge-till is similar to no-till (no fall plowing), but it creates a 6-inch raised bed with 30 inches between rows. Strip-till creates flat, narrow cultivated strips for the seed.
Thompson plants a standard corn-soybean rotationcorn one year, beans the nextto take a more integrated approach to pest management. Thompson skips fall plowing and plants the beans straight into 24-inch corn stubble. Because the stubble is not plowed under, it provides some cover and considerable waste grain for wildlife.
Thompson, with support from the Minnesota Department of Agricultures Energy and Sustainable Agriculture Program, is also planting quick-growing cover crops of various forage grasses and legumes between the ridges. The crop grows as an understory to the corn and soybeans, providing habitat, conserving soil, sequestering carbon, and retaining nitrogen in the soil, as well as adding diversity to a two-crop rotation. Thompson said water leaving the area that includes his crop fields has had the lowest sediment levels in the Blue Earth River basin.
"There are huge potential benefits from new ecologically oriented cropping systems and agricultural technologies for people and wildlife," Thompson said. "I see much greater bird nesting success, both game and nongame. Im finding upland sandpipers nesting and rearing broods right in my soybean fields, as well as bobolinks and mallards."
Thompson and his neighbors have also planted strips of native prairie along both sides of a three-mile stretch of creek. He received funds for his effort from the federal Conservation Reserve Program, which pays landowners to idle environmentally sensitive land. However, Thompson is glad to see the federal government now offers conservation incentives for land that is farmed, instead of offering only programs that require idling valuable cropland.
"Im trying to consider my whole farm as a wildlife refuge, with the filter strips and wetlands acting as an inviolate refuge and the cropped land a temporary refuge," Thompson said. "Our whole neighborhood has become very attractive to many wildlife species. Many farmers would be willing to improve cropped land for wildlife if there were rewards to offset the additional costs and risks farmers must assume.
"Farmers are dedicated to environmental health. All special-interest groups need to get together and decide where we agree. There is plenty of work for all to do."
Farming the government
Jackson Countys Brent Rossow and family have farmed in southwestern Minnesota since pioneer days. His grandfather broke the land with oxen. But a few years ago, Rossow got tired of what he called "farming the government"waiting for crop subsidy checks.
Instead, Rossow has diversified his 166 acres into the Horse Barn and Hunt Club. He started with a sporting clays operation 10 years ago and is now adding a banquet hall to an old barn. He also intends to build a bed and breakfast.
So far, Rossows hunting operation is based on 160 acres of idled land under permanent easement in the federal Wetland Reserve Program.
"Im not anti-farmer, and government programs are the only hope many of them have left," Rossow said. "But the farming game is over for the next generation. If they run an alternative operation, they will survive. People who still farm out here could do what Im doing. Ive had farmers stop and ask how they could do it. And they can, absolutely."
While Rossow and his wife, Lori, both have full-time jobs, hes hoping the farm will someday pay the bills. His next move toward that goal is trying to buy two 80-acre parcels for a released-pheasant hunting operation. The land will be converted to habitat for a variety of wildlife.
"I have pheasant hunters willing to put down money for 10 full years of huntingwild and released birdsall local hunters," Rossow said. "A lot of people want to hunt, but they have limited time and no place to go. My operation will take the pressure off landowners and help prevent trespassing. Plus, the habitat benefits water quality and all wildlife."
Dan McFarland, Fredericksburg, Iowa, might have cut down a lot more timber on his 400-acre farm in northeastern Iowa were it not for his successful buffalo tour, hunting, and product operation.
"A lot of my neighbors are cutting trees and tearing out fence rows to plant more corn. Ive planted over 1,000 evergreens in a series of fenced windbreaks for the buffalo. I could crop 50 acres, but instead of putting in corn and soybeans I cant sell, I raise buffalo60 of them plus 20 beef cows. The woods are full of deer and turkey despite the grazing," McFarland said. He has also left about 50 acres of wetlands intact because hes making a good living off his ranch and doesnt need the extra cropland.
While his family has farmed the area since 1854, McFarland broke with tradition in 1994 when he purchased his first buffalo. In addition to preserving the woods and wetlands, McFarland is also looking into planting native grasses on his 140 acres of grazed lands because native grasses stand up to northern winters and provide spring nesting habitat for upland birds.
"I hope to get to the point where the buffalo browse and graze here like they did 150 years ago," McFarland said.
Hunts at McFarlands Hawkeye Buffalo Ranch start at $2,500, with some large bulls going for $5,000. The hunt includes a room at the farms 1870s ranch house and meals for one hunter plus a relative. McFarland has tried to imitate some American Indian traditions in the hunts, including rituals before and after the hunt to give thanks for the hunt and show respect to the buffalo.
"The ceremony is attractive to our clientele," said McFarland, who is not American Indian. "If you just want to kill a buffalo, were probably not the place for you." All hunts are conducted on foot; no vehicles allowed.
The ranch also includes close-up tours of the buffalo. "The tours focus real hard on the historical aspects of the buffalo, beginning with how they were slaughtered starting in 1870 after the transcontinental railroad was finished," McFarland said.
A ranch store offers buffalo products such as packaged meat and hides. McFarlands clients come from all over the world, including Germany, Norway, South Africa, Mexico, Alaska, and Texas. He uses no hired help.
Gene Lengkeek, owner of Battle Creek Land & Livestock in east-central South Dakota, has 400 acres in CRP. The money he earns for planting the land to grassland and leaving it was attractive enough. However, the decision to enroll the land in CRP is now paying an unexpected dividend: The South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks Department Walk-In Area Program is paying him to allow hunters on this prime pheasant habitat. Since enrolling, Lengkeek has noticed yet another benefit of the program: It saves him time. Because hunters can just walk on, he is spared the distraction of talking with what can be a steady stream of gunners during the busy fall harvest season.
"Im happy with what the state pays and how the hunters behave. Many wouldnt ask permission before. Now, all they have to do is read the sign [which grants permission]. They respect the land better because of the program," Lengkeek said.
Tony Leif, a senior wildlife biologist for the department, said the walk-in program pays about $4 to $5 an acre in Lengkeeks area, which has few enrollees, and about $1 to $2 an acre in areas where enrollment is high. The program also pays higher rates for larger acreages, which are typically CRP lands. Walk-in contracts are evaluated each year, but are often renewed to match the length of the typical CRP contract, 10 to 15 years. The state also offers hunters a map of walk-in sites.
"It is one of the most popular programs we offer," Leif said. "Hunters get more for their license fees, and farmers get some compensation for allowing public hunting." DNR agricultural policy coordinator Wayne Edgerton says the Minnesota DNR is also considering this option.
The conservation card
Farmers like Lengkeek, McFarland, Rossow, Thompson, and Aden are staying on the land they love because they are earning extra income using unconventional methods. Some of the new income options for todays farmers arise because the nonfarming public and government increasingly demand conservation, wildlife, public hunting, soil protection, and clean water for drinking, swimming, fishing, and boating.
Craig Cox, executive vice president of the Soil and Water Conservation Society, Iowa, believes farmland conservation is the answer to many farmers problems and to the environmental concerns of the larger society as well.
"Most Americans appreciate our abundant, safe, affordable food supply," he says. "But Americans are becoming just as concerned about having healthy soil, clean air and water, and improved fish and wildlife habitat. We need to forge a new way of thinking about agriculture and the environment. We need a bold new approach that brings together those who depend on the land for their living and those who are concerned about their environment."
Part of the "bold new approach" must come from the federal Farm Bill, according to Al Berner, retired leader of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Farmland Wildlife Populations and Research Group. The current version, passed and signed in May 2002, could have been better, Berner said. Many were disappointed the current farm legislation is once again embracing major crop subsidies, but there was also praise for increased conservation spendingfor example, CRP was expanded by nearly 3 million acres.
"As long as the public doesnt pay for conservation in farm country, it wont happen. Federal farm policy and big agribusiness will dictate what is grown and how it will be grown. In Minnesota were doing some things for conservation (some of the best wetland protections in the nation and active habitat acquisition programs), but the problem is at the federal level," he said.
Berner believes the federal government should be paying farmers more for conservation. "Its in the public interest, and taxpayers are paying them anyway in terms of subsidies. So, we have two alternativeswe can guarantee a price, which is very destructive, or pay them to take land out of production that is creating soil erosion and poor water quality."
He also suggests government should encourageor at least allowfarmers to plant more wildlife-friendly crops. "We need to change farming practices and provide farmers the technical assistance to do that," Berner said. "Conservation spending went up in the new Farm Bill, but it wasnt enough. I think every cent for crop subsidies should go for conservation."
The nonfarming community will continue to debate the proper mix of crop and livestock production versus wildlife conservation on rural lands. In the meantime, some farmers have found wayswhether its raising unconventional crops or inviting hunters onto their landto both pay the bills and contribute to conservation.
Thinking Outside the Farm
The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, has been working for years on a revolutionary form of agriculture that just might change rural America for the better. It aims to develop perennial varieties of annual wheat, rye, sorghum, sunflowers, and other grains. It calls the new concept "natural systems agriculture."
"What we are working toward is mimicking a native prairie," said Joan Olsen, development director. "It is feasible. We have 1,500 hybrids this year we will be growing and evaluating."
Like a native prairie, a perennial field would include many varieties of plants that hold the soil, thus preventing erosion. The diverse mix would also minimize insect and disease infestations, thereby eliminating the need for expensive, polluting insecticides and herbicides. A perennial field would receive much of its nitrogen through legumes, nitrogen-fixing plants characteristic of native prairie.
"There is a lot to be worked out yet to make perennial agriculture work. We are in the plant-breeding stage, which takes so long. This is probably a 25-year program, depending on funding," Olsen said. For instance, researchers must still find a way to increase plant yield and improve shatter resistance to hold the grains on the plant for mechanical harvesting.
To learn more, check out www.landinstitute.org.
Mark Herwig is a free-lance writer from White Bear Lake.