The Patchwork of Plowshares & Prairie Farm

I revived the farm blog a couple days before our baby was born, and while I managed to write a few more posts during those early months when she napped more, it was early in the growing season, and I was on leave from my off-farm job. It has proven more challenging to find the time now that farm and office work is in full swing. So, after a few months off, I wanted to carve out a little time to talk about how we manage the diverse landscape on the farm. 

This particular topic was inspired by a workshop we hosted a couple weekends ago as part of the “Women Caring for the Land” series organized by the Southwest Wisconsin Grasslands Network. This involved a listening circle, potluck, and farm tour. While the listening circle was intended for women only, men joined in for the rest of the afternoon. It was a good opportunity to connect some local landowners interested in learning more about our CSA and all the conservation practices on our farm, and to connect with people who serve as great resources for these conservation efforts. Staff from the Driftless Area Land Conservancy, Pheasants Forever, and the local NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service - an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture) office were present to share information about opportunities and answer questions. We think our farm serves as a good model of what land owners can do to take care of the land – restoring prairies and wetlands, minding water quality and soil carbon, and providing wildlife habitat – while also generating farm income by growing crops and sharing healthy food with our local community. We're honored to share our experience with others, and always appreciate learning from our peers about the great work they're doing and planning as well.

 So, inspired by that conversation, we’d like to share an overview of the patchwork of land uses that makes up our farm.

 We talk most about our produce fields, which makes sense, because this is where we spend the most time working, generate the most revenue, and can most directly share the benefits of our hard work with our community through the CSA and farmers’ market. But we’re only growing food on a few of the roughly 75 acres on our property. This acreage is certified-organic by MOSA, a local USDA-accredited certifying agency. We certainly could grow on more, but we choose not to because our method of highly diverse produce farming for the CSA allows us to grow a lot on a small footprint and on a scale that works for our lifestyle and current capacities. Also, some of our hilly Driftless land is not well suited to growing certain crops, and rather than row cropping in many intensive annual crops we prefer to preserve and restore the native landscape. Every once in a while, we talk about the possibility of introducing some kind of rotational grazing, which could help manage invasives, improve soil quality, and promote carbon sequestration. If you ask Scott, he’ll say we should get cows; if you ask me, I’ll say bison (though I admit they’re pretty intimidating). Our current compromise is neither.

Some of the diversity on the farm - the prairie remnant and restored prairie, produce fields, and wetland

Some of the diversity on the farm - the prairie remnant and restored prairie, produce fields, and wetland

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a number of programs incentivizing conservation measures that we partake in here on the farm. I’ve historically had a hard time keeping all the acronyms straight and paired with the right agencies, so frankly writing this blog post has been a good opportunity for me to get this all written down in one place!

 One program we participate in is CRP, or the Conservation Reserve Program. This program is administered by the Farm Service Agency (FSA) of the USDA. We currently have three fields enrolled in the program: about 10 acres of restored prairie on a hill above our produce fields, another 10 acres of restored prairie in the valley below the produce fields, and another 6 acres of grassland in the back corner of our property. These programs were enrolled in CRP in 2000 and were renewed in 2015. CRP contracts typically last for 10 or 15 years. According to the contract, we receive $210 per acre per year for following a number of required practices including managing invasives, shrubs, and trees. This often includes controlled burns, which can be a really effective management tool. FSA has to approve our burn plans. We’ve historically requested to burn more than the minimum amount to help us manage trees and shrubs.

A controlled burn in the restored prairie

A controlled burn in the restored prairie

There were some other chunks of land that were enrolled in CRP under prior ownership which we inherited when our family bought the farm. These are two plots of trees – a walnut grove and a spruce grove. However, while these programs were originally enrolled in 2000, FSA did not renew the contracts in 2015. The agency has a bit of a reputation for not renewing contracts for trees, which is why these programs can be tricky. Obviously planting a tree is a long-term commitment, so it’s hard to plan on this long-view timeline with uncertainty surrounding contract renewal. We now have a walnut grove with skinny trees planted too close together (we may thin at some point), and an overgrown Christmas tree lot at the back of the property (which does provide a good location for winter snowball fights).

 Not to be confused with CRP, we also take advantage of a program called CSP, or the Conservation Stewardship Program. This program is administered by NRCS, the Natural Resources Conservation Service of USDA. A few years ago, we enrolled a pollinator plot in this program. CSP pays a certain rate per acre in exchange for following particular practices on that land. The contract terms are shorter than CRP. Caring for our pollinator plot involves planting certain pollinator-friendly flowering plants and managing invasive species. The pollinator plot is just above our perennial produce field, and it’s rewarding the see many bees visiting the nearby chives and other crops growing in the field immediately south of the CSP plot.

 Another program administered by NRCS is EQIP – the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. EQIP is a cost-sharing program that helps landowners implement conservation practices to protect soil and water quality. In 2017, we received a 70% cost-share (meaning we paid only 30% of the costs) to dig a scrape. A scrape is the technical term for a pond that’s adjacent to a wetland. The main benefit of the scrape is providing good wildlife habitat, and indeed, we’ve observed a range of animals enjoying the scrape including belted kingfishers, muskrats, deer, American toads, fish, and even an otter. Along with the wetland, the scrape can also help with filtration (keeping any nutrients that run off our fields out of the stream) and can absorb flood waters. This is increasingly important as we experience more extreme weather and flooding.

The scrape

The scrape

 Our wetland is not enrolled in any conservation programs, but we still manage this area – mostly with controlled burns trying to remove invasive species like honeysuckle, cattails, and reed canary grass which out-compete native species. Reed canary grass is something that settlers and farmers planted in the area long ago when they realized it grew well in wet areas and served as forage for their livestock, and it has since taken over and become quite the pervasive nuisance.

 Finally, our prized jewel: the prairie remnant. This beautiful piece of prairie has never been plowed and only periodically grazed, a rarity in these parts (USGS reports over 99% of Wisconsin’s tallgrass prairie has disappeared since 1830). We’ve had success restoring other areas of the farm to prairie, but it’s hard to compete with the abundance and diversity of native species that we observe in the remnant. While we did receive a one-time contract from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to do some brushing (cutting brush/removing invasives) in 2014, we have regularly managed this prairie (through brushing and burning) to help it thrive and spread. In fact, there is an oak savanna that is part of the prairie remnant, and after years of work we’re seeing lots of native species moving back in such as shooting stars, cone flowers, bergamot, side oats, and Penn sedge (sedges are similar to grasses but are in a different family, and can be easily identified by their triangular-shaped stems). The prairie remnant contains some rare species such as compass plant, lead plant, and Indian plantain. It also includes a state-listed threatened plant: Hill’s thistle.

Shooting stars in the prairie remnant

Shooting stars in the prairie remnant

 We are incredibly fortunate to be farming on leased family land, as land access is one of the main barriers that young farmers face. Scott’s parents, Bob and Carolyn, live up the road and have been doing incredible conservation work there for over 15 years. As jointly managed land, we do a lot of coordinating about priorities and strategy for how to care for the land where we live. It works well because we generally have the same priorities and values in mind – restoring native landscapes, providing wildlife habitat, contributing to good water quality, and building a healthy and sustainable land use model in our community. We cannot thank the Laesers enough for all they have done and continue to do to help us live according to our values on the farm.

 I have been wanting to make a barn quilt to proudly display at our farm, but I haven’t found the time yet for this creative pursuit. I don’t just want to use a standard pattern, but rather hope to craft a design that is meaningful and unique to our farm. Maybe this patchwork quilt can somehow represent the patchwork of land uses here on the farm. Because while managing our farm certainly entails a good amount of planning and science, it is also a form of art. We’re grateful for all the support and resources – from our family, community, and USDA programs – that allow us to care for this beautiful Driftless landscape.

Our farm name in a photo

Our farm name in a photo