LITCHFIELD, MINN. - Amid the seemingly endless waves of corn and soybeans that stretch westward of this town, David and Jeanette Stottrup cultivate an oasis of native grasses, wild flowers and trees. "If I don't do anything more in life than conserve this land for future generations, I'll be happy," David Stottrup said Thursday morning.
Reluctant farmers of a sort, the Stottrups have been on their 220-acre spread since 1980, when they purchased it from Jeanette's parents, who had farmed the property for more than three decades.
David and Jeanette also attempted to farm the land, but a generalized aversion to indebtedness, as well as an unwillingness to increase profits by growing the size of their farm, left them on the sidelines of the more industrialized row cropping operations that evolved around them.
"When the Conservation Reserve Program began in 1985, we bid some land into it, and have enrolled more whenever we could since then," said David, 70, who in addition to farming also taught school.
Now the Stottrups' entire farm is in CRP -- an enrollment process that occurred over 25 years.
Their operation was showcased Thursday by various conservation groups and agencies because the Stottrups are among the first Minnesota property owners to sell a perpetual easement to the state that will help clean up the creek that divides their property, while also providing wildlife habitat.
Called the Reinvest in Minnesota (RIM) Riparian Buffer Easement Program, the undertaking is a joint venture of the Clean Water Fund and the separately managed and appropriated Outdoor Heritage Fund, both of which were created following passage in 2008 of the Legacy Amendment.
"We have more than $10 million available for the riparian buffer program," said John Jaschke, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR). "We're looking for landowners interested in the multiple benefits of the program."
Enrolling land in the stream-buffering plan is particularly important for the state, its water and wildlife, Jaschke said, in lieu of the flight from CRP occurring among farmers in Minnesota and throughout the Midwest.
"Contracts covering 823,000 CRP acres will expire in Minnesota in the next five years," he said. High crop prices virtually ensure half or more of the acres will be returned to cultivation. "Our hope is we can conserve about 10 percent, or 80,000 acres, with this new program."
Benefits gained by combining Clean Water Fund appropriations with those from the Wildlife Heritage Fund are many, said Joe Duggan, a Pheasants Forever vice president.
"Losing CRP acres as we are, we have to develop new ways to protect our waters, and new ways also to ensure that wildlife have places to live," Duggan said. "This program won't put as many acres on the ground as CRP did, but by combining the water and habitat money, and targeting where we conserve these lands, we can clean up our water while also helping wildlife."
Unlike CRP, which is effected by a contract covering a specific number of years between a landowner and the federal government, the state's buffer plan provides perpetual protection of enrolled acres.
Meaning if the property is ever sold, the new owner must also maintain the buffer in native grasses and other designated cover.
Onetime payment rates of the RIM plan vary by county and even township. The Stottrups are enrolling 43 acres in the RIM plan at just under $4,000 an acre. In return, a permanent 200-foot runoff and habitat strip will be established and maintained on each side of Battle Creek as it winds through the their property.
Benefits of such a wide buffer are many. Instead of rapid discharges of rain water, for example, into streams from corn and bean fields, run-off distilled through buffers is slowed, if not absorbed altogether, thereby reducing erosion while trapping sediment, nutrients and pesticide residue.
Also, nitrogen and phosphorus loading of streams is minimized. And such songbirds and game birds as pheasants can use the buffers year-round.
"We're most likely to enroll the wider buffers using the Wildlife Heritage funds in areas where there are other wildlife lands nearby, such as wildlife management areas," Jaschke said. "When that's not the case, we might only use the Clean Water funds."
Though he doesn't hunt, David Stottrup's enthusiasm for wildlife encouraged by the land he and his wife have so carefully nurtured over the years was obvious Thursday. "It's been a blessing to us," he said.
Landowners interested in the stream buffer program should contact a Soil and Water Conservation District office or go online at bwsr.state.mn.us/easements.
Dennis Anderson • firstname.lastname@example.org