Minnesota CREP enrollees: It’s about creating wildlife habitat

Steven Geis posed with son Matthew and dog Stella after a successful hunt. The Redwood County land Geis enrolled in the Minnesota Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program is 100 yards from this site. (Courtesy photo)

Meet buffer requirements. Stop battling wet ground. Build a legacy.

Nine months into the new Minnesota Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program enrollment period, those motivations have paced sign-ups through 54 eligible counties in the southern and western parts of the state, the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources said in a story via a news release Wednesday, Feb. 21.

“It’s going to accomplish a lot as part of the conservation goals for Minnesota,” said Dave Rickert, assistant easement section manager for the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources. “These are areas that are playing an important part for water quality and wildlife habitat.”

Minnesota CREP can buffer streams, restore wetlands or protect drinking water supplies. It puts marginal cropland into perpetual conservation easements.

By mid-February, 35 soil and water conservation districts had submitted 130 applications. The 102 funded involve 3,582 acres and nearly $31.8 million.

“I would attribute the success of that to local SWCD efforts as well as wanting to leave a legacy for future generations. These may be areas that are getting drowned out every so often. It’s putting less stress on the landowner having to worry about constantly flooded areas,” Rickert said in the story.

Buffer compliance

Leroy, Howard and Greg Van Wyhe are Van Whye Farms, a 1,500-acre corn and soybean operation based in Rock County near Hills.

The Van Wyhes knew they needed to buffer the drainage ditch feeding Mud Creek. They could have seeded it to grass and fed the hay to cattle. But they’d enjoyed the wildlife habitat that grew out of an existing 80-acre Reinvest in Minnesota easement along the Rock River.

“As long as we needed to put it in the buffer on each side, we decided we might as well get paid for it. So we put it into the CREP program,” Leroy Van Wyhe said. “We do pheasant hunting and deer hunting; that’s another one of the reasons we decided to put it in the CREP program – so it gives us access to more hunting ground.”

One of the three brothers usually harvests a deer from the RIM property every year.

“The ground is good, real good for farming and raising corn and beans. It’s pretty valuable land down here,” Leroy said. He advised farmers considering Minnesota CREP to determine their soil type and payment rate.

What Arlyn Gehrke called “fairly attractive rates for marginal crop ground” may be driving some Rock County sign-ups.

“We’ve had a surprisingly high interest in CREP. We’re not known to have a lot of conservation easements in the county because we have a lot of fertile ground and expensive ground as well,” said Gehrke, Rock County Land Management/SWCD engineering technician. “It takes a bit of risk out of the operation.”

This spring, the Van Wyhes will seed their 12.75-acre Minnesota CREP easement with the SWCD-recommended, six-grass mix.

Legacy creation

Bob Muilenburg has raised potatoes for Hormel’s Dinty Moore stew, onions for the open market, and sweet corn for the local cannery. As he plans for retirement – he’ll turn 66 in June; his wife, Darlane, retired late last year – Muilenburg has pared down his 1,100-acre Freeborn County operation. This year, he’ll farm about 260 acres.

In recent years, the property his father purchased in the late 1960s just off Interstate Highway 35 near Geneva Lake produced carrots and sweet corn. Muilenburg described the land as peat or “muck” – a silty soil that falls away from the root crops at harvest.

“It’s been very productive land. It’s a farm I really love, but this was a good time to put it into an easement,” Muilenburg said.

Chad Billat of Freeborn Soil & Water Conservation District said a lot of Minnesota CREP enrollees had been waiting for the next conservation easement program.

“They were waiting for something that makes financial sense to them,” Billat said, adding that payments over 15 years create less of a tax burden. “Landowners are getting close to retirement or their renters are getting close to retirement and looking for different options.”

The 145 acres Muilenburg is enrolling in Minnesota CREP will expand wildlife habitat abutting Geneva Lake. With two different conservation easements, he previously enrolled parcels totaling 50 acres.

Wildlife habitat

Twin Cities elementary school principal Steven Geis raises 1,400 acres of corn and soybeans, allows hunting in exchange for help managing 500 acres enrolled in conservation easements, and this winter enrolled 105 acres of marginal Redwood County cropland in MN CREP.

Geis grew up in the city. His parents bought a farm in 1976. Being new to farming, Geis said he was receptive to conservation practices from the start. He credits a well-informed and cooperative Redwood Soil & Water Conservation District staff with identifying options suited to his property.

“With us having less than 1 percent of wetlands in our county (remaining), every wetland restoration we can do is extremely important for water quality and for putting conservation on the ground,” said Marilyn Bernhardson, Redwood SWCD administrator.

Geis’ Redwood County MN CREP enrollment includes 55 acres near the Cottonwood River in Lamberton Township that’s often too wet to farm, and 50 acres of less productive, lighter soils in adjoining North Hero Township.

“In looking at the maps, you can see what the yield is. When we get an adequate rain it’s good. But it’s also nestled between two pieces that are currently also enrolled (in conservation easements) so it’s going to make a larger tract,” Geis said. “It’s the best use for the land, in the sense that you’re taking a piece of ground that may be marginal and utilizing its full potential by restoring it.”

Geis fields calls year-round from people seeking permission to hunt his land enrolled in conservation easements. He used to charge $150 per gun per day. Now, he tells hunters to call back in April or May when he needs help with controlled burns, cleaning up fence lines or picking rocks.

“City folk get to come out and do sweat equity, and then they get exclusive hunting rights,” Geis said.

Both of his Redwood County Minnesota CREP additions will make good pheasant habitat. Geis also expects to see wild turkeys and deer on the piece near the Cottonwood River.

“You have to look at what’s the best use of the land for the long-term – especially if it’s something that’s going to help with waterways, that’s going to help with water quality and wildlife management,” Geis said.

Minnesota CREP: Six things to consider

FAIR COMPENSATION: Combining USDA Conservation Reserve Program contract payments and Reinvest in Minnesota easement payments equals at least 90 percent of the land’s value.

MARGINAL-CROPLAND FOCUS: CRP and RIM payments often are attractive on land that produces lower yields because of wet ground, soil type or other challenges.

CCRP COMPARISON: USDA does not plan to offer Continuous CRP to producers; Minnesota CREP is the only option available. If CCRP becomes available at a later time due to additional incentives paid through Minnesota CREP, payments will be 52 percent to 120 percent greater with Minnesota CREP compared with CCRP.

FARM BILL UNCERTAINTY: Minnesota CREP or other cropland retirement options might not be available in future legislation. The next Federal Farm bill will expire Sept. 30, the end of the federal fiscal year.

CONSERVATION ELEMENTS: Enrolling land in Minnesota CREP directly benefits water quality and habitat.

LEGACY OPPORTUNITY: A Minnesota CREP enrollment can benefit future generations and the environment.

— Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources

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