The Farm as Natural Habitat

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As fall in the Upper Midwest goes into overdrive, migrations of ducks, geese and other birds remind us of the variety of feathered fowl that have been residing in our rural areas since spring. This time of year, local wildlife watchers flock to national and state refuges to get a glimpse at their favorite birds before they leave us for a few months. These refuges are great assets to the area. But this is also a good time of year to remember what role farmland can play in providing critical habitat for wildlife. That became crystal clear to me this summer when I visited the Minnesota farm of Loretta and Martin Jaus. This dairy operation is living proof that prime wildlife habitat and profitable farming are not mutually exclusive.

The argument is often made that profitable farming and top quality wildlife habitat don’t mix. If we want to leave areas for birds, mammals and even frogs, goes this argument, the best thing to do is create isolated refuges where no economic activity takes place. As Dana and Laura Jackson describe in the book The Farm as Natural Habitat, such thinking allows us to treat farming areas like “sacrifice zones” as far as healthy ecological activity is concerned. There’s a lot of problems with such an environmental protection strategy, not the least of which is that no wildlife refuge is a hermetically sealed fortress of solitude. What goes on outside that refuge or park will eventually have profound impacts on the ecosystem throughout the region—no matter if the land is managed by Farmer Brown or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. And isolated islands of habitat don’t work so well for wildlife, such as birds and predators, that like to move around a fair bit.

The Jaus family doesn’t believe their farm needs to be an environmental sacrifice area at all, and they are proving it every day. They produce certified organic milk for Organic Valley on 410 acres in western Minnesota. They bought the farm from Martin’s family in 1990. Before returning to the farm, Martin and Loretta got degrees in wildlife biology and habitat management and worked on a private wildlife refuge near Chicago for a time.

Soon after taking over the farm, they set to work blending agricultural productivity and wildlife habitat restoration by establishing trees, grasses and other perennial plant species with the help of various government programs. In fact, over the years the family has planted five miles of tree shelterbelts alone. These trees provide wildlife habitat, but also shelter their rotationally grazed cows and prevent soil erosion on their crop fields. They’ve even planted native prairie grasses in their grazing pastures. The farmers also use careful crop rotations to build up their subterranean wildlife: soil organisms. And since they are organic, there are no pesticides present on their farm to kill off insects. That means there is plenty of food for birds and other species to thrive on.

All of the acres of habitat these farmers have established over the years is impressive, and obviously their training in wildlife management has come in handy when determining what species of tree to plant where. But what’s truly impressive about Martin and Loretta is how they’ve integrated their farming practices with environmental stewardship. For example, rotational grazing on the Jaus farm provides low-cost feed for the cows and builds the soil while spreading manure in an efficient manner, providing a good economic reason for growing grass. That well-managed grass system translates into improved water quality and excellent habitat for grassland birds. It’s a prime example of an economically viable farming system being good for the environment.

Martin and Loretta have arrived at such a balance through careful observation of their land and animals. They remind me of a group of farmers from southeast Minnesota who in the 1990s worked with scientists, natural resource professionals and others to create a system for monitoring the ecological impacts of sustainable farming systems. The result of this work was the Monitoring Tool Box, a resource that has influenced a whole generation of farmers, environmentalists and land managers in general. The Tool Box has even had a positive influence on federal farm policy.

In the case of the Jaus family, close observation has become a practical habit they also find enjoyable. When I visited their farm, they made sure they showed me the crown jewel of their wildlife habitat restoration efforts: an 11-acre area that consists of wetland and prairie. This habitat, which was established on prime cropland in 1993, has become a hotbed for numerous species of wildlife. It’s even attracted the attention of wildlife scientists conducting research. I saw, and heard, firsthand the results of these farmers’ efforts to put agroecology into practice. It was obvious Marin and Loretta were thoroughly enjoying identifying birds by sight and sound. They were also thrilled at the message this little piece of paradise was sending them.

Don’t take my word for it. You can hear Loretta and Martin describe how they’ve struck this fine balance by listening to Ear to the Ground No. 25. Their intricate description of how they’ve interwoven farming and environmental stewardship is inspiring. As Loretta told me at one point: “If the place is good for the wildlife, then we know it’s good for us.”

But you don’t need to take their word for it either. Listen carefully to the recording and you will hear numerous bird species singing their approval of this farm as a natural habitat.

Now keep in mind Martin and Loretta are doing all of this in the middle of an area that is considered one of the top corn and soybean producers in the state. If their farm becomes an isolated haven for wildlife surrounded by a desert of row crops, in the grand scheme of things are Martin and Loretta really any better off than all those isolated government-owned refuges? The farmers have asked that question themselves. That’s why they are so pleased that a few farming neighbors—some of whom thought Martin and Loretta were nature nuts just a few years ago—have recently started establishing habitat of their own. The phrase, “lead by example,” comes to mind.

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