Selling Conservation in Farm Country

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It’s November, and that means Minnesota’s various hunting seasons are in full cry. As hunters take to the fields, forests and sloughs, they can’t help but notice how much we rely on farm country to provide habitat for waterfowl, phesants, deer, furbearers—you name it. What they probably don’t know is that an innovative public-private partnership has been working quietly the past three years to provide and improve upon much of that habitat. The Farm Bill Assistance Partnership may be one of the best-kept agricultural conservation secrets in the state. For the sake of wildlife and environmental improvement overall, it’s time the word got out on this initiative.
State and national wildlife refuges, as well as public waterways and forestlands, may be featured in the ads for guns, clothes and other hunting gear, but more than half of this state is made up of farms. Brushy fencelines, riparian waterways, small woodlots, grassy corners and seasonal wetlands can be found in even the most intensely tilled communities. It’s surprising how much wildlife you’ll find in these odd spots. I know from exerpience: I spent many a November day on our southwest Iowa farm hunting these little slices of game heaven.

Yes, the increased plantings of row crops like corn and soybeans have decimated much of our farmland wildlife habitat, but there are still some real ecological gems left out there. Even better, there are times when a bit of ecological health can be brought back to intensively farmed land with just a plugged tile line here, or a planting of native grasses there.

This summer I had the great fortune of seeing such environmental renewal on several Minnesota farms. I visited the farms while researching an article for the current issue of the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer. What I found was that there are numerous federal conservation programs out there that can help farmers restore wildlife habitat, as well as soil- and water-friendly ground cover. The government can do everything from provide cost-share money to plant trees and establish a wetland, to pay farmers outright for idling acres. The government can also share the kind of technical assistance and equipment that’s so key to establishing certain natural areas.

But farmers are busy and wading through the paperwork and red tape associated with some government conservation programs can be prohibitively time consuming and daunting. That’s where the Farm Bill Assistance Partnership comes in.

The Partnership is made up of the Department of Natural Resources, the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources and Pheasants Forever. Since 2003 the partnership has used state and private funds to market federal government incentive programs. A the heart of the initiative is some good old-fashioned face-to-face sales talk. Three dozen habitat specialists employed by the Partnership visit farmers and talk to them about what conservation programs they are eligible for. They set up “what-if” scenarios of habitat restoration, and crunch the numbers to help make it financially viable for the farmers.

“If you want stuff done, you have to go out there and knock on landowners’ doors,” Tabor Hoek, a field conservationist with the Board of Water and Soil Resources told me. “Landowners aren’t going to drop everything to come sign up for a program.”

These habitat specialists not only work to get habitat established on individual farms. They also take a look at aerial photos and do a lot of driving around in rural communities to figure out how contiguous stretches of conservation areas can be developed on neighboring farms. As any ecologist will tell you, it’s these connected natural areas that provide the biggest bang for the environmental buck. The Partnership’s habitat specialists are often based out of local USDA Farm Service Agency offices, which puts them in close proximity to their farmer-clients.

It’s become clear in the past few years how important it is to have people like this out in the field pitching conservation. Competition for farmland is fierce—crop subsidies, development pressure, and, most recently, demand for corn-based ethanol, have all made it harder to promote setaside initiatives like the Conservation Reserve Program.

So one thing these specialists do is see how they can get local watershed, hunting, fishing and general conservation groups involved in helping establish environmental improvements on farmland. This can result in more cash for the farmer, as well as a local pat on the back for being a good steward in the community.

These habitat specialists also have a knack for getting landowners excited about the potential some of these improvements have for changing the landscape for the better, as in, “What would happen if a drainage tile line was plugged in this field that only produces crops every third year anyway because of flooding? What would it look like in a year?”

I saw just such a scenario become a reality in Pope County. The local Farm Bill Assistance Partnership habitat specialist took me to an area dominated by corn and soybean fields. Suddenly we found ourselves next to a field where egrets stalked shallow waters, and a mallard hen with ducklings in tow swam amid emerging vegetation. Old cornstalks leaned at sharp angles in the mud, a reminder that less than a year ago this 34-acre wetland had been a crop field. This land, which the farmer later told me produced a decent crop maybe two out of 10 years, had come back to ecological life thanks to the Farm Bill Assistance Partnership.

“I really was surprised at how quick the ducks and geese showed up to have lunch,” the farmer told me. “It probably is starting to look like it did in the past.”

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