It’s a sunny afternoon in mid-summer, and wildlife biologist Tex Hawkins is ecstatic over the “pepper-and-salt” pattern he’s seeing on a diverse farming operation in southeast Minnesota’s bluff country.
He and I are getting a tour of the John and Marge Warthesen farm, which sits astride a ridge overlooking West Indian Creek, a tributary of the Zumbro River. Its presence marked by a blue haze above the trees a few miles away, the Zumbro flows another dozen miles before draining into the Mississippi.
“It’s just bird heaven,” Hawkins says as the van he and the Warthesens (along with me, as well as the farmers’ friend John Grobner and his daughter Laura) are riding in stops next to a brushy fenceline. A 35-head brood cow herd is grazing on the other side of the fence. Behind Hawkins and the Warthesens is corn and hay. The brushy fenceline extends both ways and follows the contour of the ridge. Down the hill below the grazing cattle is a pond and beyond that, a thick stand of hardwoods that block the view of West Indian Creek.
“The thing about the field borders and pastures is that they’re all connected together with these wonderful fences that are woven together with vines of grapes and woodbine and all these different species of crawling vine as well as low shrubs,” Hawkins explains. “You’ve got these long strips—they’re very narrow, but they’re excellent habitat for catbirds, and a lot of other fruit and seed-eating birds like to perch along the fenceline. I like the connectivity of the whole situation.”
“Most of these fencelines in other places would be sprayed, just to clean them up,” says John.
But the presence of the brushy fenceline, as well as the timber, sloughs and other “wild” corners on the Warthesen farm are not there as a result of neglect, an unwillingness to take the time and effort to “clean up” the farm. Quite the opposite. Since they started farming this land more than three decades ago, the Warthesens have made a conscious effort to combine food production with stewardship. It’s been a lot of hard work. John grew up across the road from this farm, and remembers as a kid when there were ravines so deep a D6 Caterpillar could work at the bottom without being seen from ground level.
“In places it was just a huge bunch of ditches,” says John. “You couldn’t get across them. You could barely walk across them.”
They’ve replaced large over-grazed pastures with smaller ones that are managed with rotational grazing, which helps maintain the health of deep-rooted, soil-friendly grasses while recycling manure. The Warthesens have also replaced contiguous crop fields with contour-hugging strips consisting of diverse plantings of hay, small grains, soybeans and corn. And in places where producing a crop in a given year is an iffy proposition at best, they’ve established native prairie, woodlands and wetlands.
The farm uses a variety of government programs. For example, cost-share money from the USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program, helped the Warthesens get their managed rotational grazing system set up about five years ago. They’ve also used the federal Conservation Reserve Program and the Grassland Reserve to keep the land covered in perennial vegetation. In addition, many of the trees were planted and managed through a program run by the Minnesota DNR, called the Forest Stewardship Program.
This farm is 160 acres, but one friend describes it as the “biggest little 160 acres he’s ever seen.” A drive around the perimeter of the land shows why: the undulating landscape, combined with the diversity of plants, gives a visitor the sense that they are entering a different parcel of land every hundred yards or so. Drive past the cornfield and over a hump in the land, and all of a sudden there’s seven acres of native prairie established on CRP ground. Take a walk past a stand of timber and it quickly gives way to a hay field or a small slough. While returning from the fields and forests, one gets a grand view of the Warthesens’ 3.8 acres of vegetable gardens, which produces for the Rochester Farmers’ Market as well as for a couple dozen local families who belong to the Many Hands Farm Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) operation. They also raise lamb, eggs and poultry for direct sale to consumers.
Of the 160 acres, about 40 is timber, 30 is pasture and 10 is wetland/wildlife habitat. The rest is crop fields and vegetable gardens.
This agroecological tour on a summer day is significant not only for what is being observed on the Warthesen farm, but who is doing the observing. At first blush, it may seem odd that someone like Tex Hawkins appreciates the benefits a privately held farm can provide landscape health. His employer is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is known for, among other things, managing federally-owned wildlife refuges across the country. But like a growing group of natural resource professionals, Hawkins knows that such refuges do not have impenetrable walls around them.
For example, runoff from farms in southeast Minnesota and southwest Wisconsin is having negative impacts on water quality in the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, a 261-mile stretch of marsh, floodplain forests and grasslands that begins a few miles from the Warthesen farm.
In the 1990s, he was one of the members of the Monitoring Team, an initiative led by the Land Stewardship Project that brought together farmers, scientists and environmental professionals to determine how to measure the impacts of various sustainable farming practices. While with the Monitoring Team, Hawkins and other environmental experts saw how systems such as managed rotational grazing could improve ecological health while producing a viable income for farmers.
The Warthesens’ method of managing the land is a combination of proactivity and going with the flow. For example, one crop field in a triangle-shaped area was difficult to turn equipment around in. So they used EQIP money to convert it to a grazing paddock. At one point, Hawkins comments on a shrubby area that makes nice wildlife habitat and is full of game trails. It turns out a boulder is nestled in there somewhere, and John grew tired of moving cropping equipment around it.
Marge drives the van close to the tree line above Indian Creek. John points out a wildlife planting they put in seven years ago—maple, black cherry and pines are thriving. When planting, he followed the guidelines in Landscaping for Wildlife, a DNR booklet. Before that it was just a bunch of ditches. Marge parks on a small rise that turns out to be a check dam. In amongst a thick stand of trees and cattails is standing water. Indian grass above the catchment provides deep-rooted soil protection. Below the dam, a ravine covered with trees plunges sharply toward West Indian Creek, just a quarter-mile down hill. A premier trout stream, the DNR has spent a lot of tax money on the stream to improve fish habitat.
“This would have delivered a lot of sediment down into the stream,” says Hawkins. “Now look how it’s buffered.”
Up the hill is seven acres of CRP ground with a twist: the Warthesens have planted oak, ash and walnut, among other species, in the native prairie. The planting is four years old, and some of the trees are poking up through the grass. This was done with the help of DNR money.
Toward the end of the tour, Marge parks the van next to a cornfield, gets out, and leads the way through a thick stand of hardwoods as a hidden warbling vireo sings its heart out. “They don’t even take a breath all summer—sing, sing, sing,” says Hawkins with a laugh.
Next to some old barbed wire, Marge points out a small sinkhole, an indicator of the presence of fractured limestone “karst” geology just below the soil’s surface. This type of geology is a major conduit for contaminants such as agrichemicals, manure and human sewage to make their way down to groundwater.
A few yards beyond the sinkhole, she stops on the lip of a cliff. Some 200 feet below is Highway 4, and on the other wide of that is an oxbow-ridden Indian Creek. A neighbor has planted corn in the bend of the river right up to the bank.
It’s a beautiful view, but also a reminder that no farm is an ecological island. All of the efforts they are making to improve soil and water quality, as well as wildlife habitat, are dwarfed by landscape-level impacts elsewhere in the watershed.
“There’s not much of a buffer strip around that creek where the corn is and in the spring the erosion and the falling off of that field is just atrocious, just atrocious,” says Marge as she gazes at the bottomland.
“And at the mouth of the Zumbro you’ll see the results—a huge mud plume coming out at the mouth of the river,” says Hawkins. “People are losing a lot of ag ground on the bottoms too, because the river’s going crazy and ripping out the banks.”
“It doesn’t take much rain to create havoc down on the Zumbro anymore,” says Marge.
Land isn’t eroding because farmers want it to. The reality is that in order for the Warthesens and their neighbors to stay on the land, they have to make a viable living from it. Rotational grazing can be a low-cost, profitable way to raise livestock. And the recent demand for locally-produced foods has kept the Many Hands CSA busy.
But the fact remains that every acre of land planted to trees or prairie is an acre not producing corn or some other cash commodity. Programs like EQIP can help relieve the burden of putting in the fencing, pathways and water lines needed for a good managed rotational grazing system. In addition, the Warthesens have taken advantage of tree planting and forest management funds that are available. But on this particular summer day, the shadow of farm economics is looming over this “non-productive” land. For example, the Warthesens receive $78 an acre annually for “renting” their CRP ground to the government. A neighbor with land equally as steep as theirs is receiving $200 cash rent from a crop farmer.
Hawkins notes that one way to make up for the discrepancy would be through “ecosystem service payments” that would reward farmers for providing such public goods as cleaner water in the watershed. He says such a system is being used in Costa Rica, where he has assisted on conservation projects off and on over the past 40 years. “They have a number of different categories of ecosystem service payments that the landowners get,” he says. “Costa Rican farmers can receive annual payments to help maintain forest cover, financed in part through European carbon offsets, and this helps sustain clean local drinking water sources, as well as the songbirds that spend their winters in the tropics and raise their young each summer right there on the farm.”
“Well, keeping the creek clean would be a public service,” quips Marge.
The economics of modern agriculture make being a good steward difficult, but farmers like the Warthesens are highly motivated to work around such barriers. It’s obvious Marge and John are proud of what they’ve done with the farm. John is an avid outdoorsman, the type that finds benefits even in having hollow trees on the place because they provide homes for coons, and thus plenty of hunts for his Walker hound.
Throughout the entire tour, the Warthesens proudly describe how they see bluebirds, tree swallows, red-headed woodpeckers, meadowlarks, dickcissels and bobolinks along their fencelines as well as in the pastures. At one point, as if on cue, three turkeys emerge from a cornfield a couple hundred yards away on a sidehill and stroll over a hay field. One of the turkeys is unusually light-colored, almost blond or golden in the summer sun.
But there’s more than recreation and wildlife watching on the farmers’ minds when they plant yet one more row of trees. Hawkins says that he recognizes in the Warthesens a deep, abiding love for what the land can produce—agronomically as well as ecologically. But it even goes beyond that—to an unwavering respect for the land, down to the soil itself.
Marge made that clear back in the 1980s when she and a small group of LSP members traveled to the Boston headquarters of John Hancock to talk about the environmental abuse of a neighborhood farm the insurance giant owned at the time. How did these farmers get across their message that this was more than about economics and efficiency? There in John Hancock’s corporate offices, among the pinstripes and power ties, Warthesen and the other farmers showed off Exhibit A: a small pile of prime southeast Minnesota soil.
As Aldo Leopold put it: “The landscape of any farm is the owner’s portrait of himself. Conservation implies self-expression in that landscape, rather than blind compliance with economic dogma.”