July–August 2022


Forest Explosion

This tree planting method relies on quantity and healthy competition.

Keith Goetzman

On a spring morning near Mankato, retired farmer Harvey Hesse and his friend Ron Winter are touring a 21-acre forest they planted on Hesse’s land in 2002. Where corn and beans used to grow, a thriving young woodland now stands. Instead of row-crop monoculture, the parcel along the LeSueur River teems with diverse life, including a herd of deer slipping amid densely spaced trees dominated by oaks and black walnut.

Winter hunts deer here, and they’ve seen turkeys, rabbits, owls, hawks, and more on their frequent forays through the area, which Hesse regards as a private park. “To me it’s just beautiful down here,” he says.

The forest was inspired by Hesse’s late wife, Beverly, who was concerned that deer habitat was getting scarce amid development. Hesse and Winter knew of many other conservation benefits from switching cropland to native habitat.

The forest is a living example of an innovative and relatively new reforestation technique called hardwood direct seeding. It basically involves bombarding an area with tree seed such as acorns and nuts, then using farm equipment such as a disc or drag harrow to disturb the soil and work in the seed.

“Traditional tree planting in southern Minnesota was seedling plantings of 450 per acre with 10 by 10–foot spacing,” says Randy Schindle, a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources forester who helped Hesse with seed and planning for the restoration. “But often it was probably more cost effective to feed the seedlings directly to the deer!”

The results of direct seeding have been phenomenal, says Schindle: “A more natural-looking stand, with more than enough trees to survive and feed the deer.”

The method, developed in Iowa by contractor One Stop Forestry, was brought to southeastern Minnesota by forester Duwayne Oakes. “The key is the density that forces the trees to grow up faster and get above deer browse height,” says Oakes.

DNR forester Valiree Green was convinced, after touring Iowa plantings and seeing Oakes’ work, that the technique had promise for Minnesota. The first plantings were in Houston County in 1999 and are now standard practice on open ground in the southeastern part of the state and spreading beyond. “Almost any field that’s in CRP or CREP going to tree planting is direct seeded,” she says.

The Conservation Reserve and Conservation Reserve Enhancement programs compensate farmers to convert cropland to native habitat. Hesse’s forest was a CREP conversion with planting costs shared by state and federal government. It’s now protected by a permanent Reinvest In Minnesota easement, meaning it will never be farmed or developed.

Hesse’s wife once asked him, “Where are the deer going to go?” On this spring morning, they are right here in the woods that the Hesses envisioned.