IN SOUTHEAST MINNESOTA – When Ross Goldsmith’s great-grandfather, George Goldsmith, arrived in this part of the state from England in 1862, he came by boat, docking in Winona and hoofing it from there to Fillmore County, not far from the village of Chatfield, present population about 2,700.
At the time, mature white pines shaded the sun from much of the southeast bluff country, massive trees that in the decades to follow were felled and milled to build homes and barns.
Some of those barns stand yet today, including a few on the 1,600 acres owned by Ross Goldsmith, 70, and his brother, Steven, 68, livestock operators who recently were named the state’s outstanding conservationist farmers by the Minnesota Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts.
The award in part recognizes the Goldsmith brothers, along with other family members, for their efforts at controlling runoff from their lands into the Root River and various of its tributaries.
Just as appropriately, the award could have acknowledged the Goldsmiths’ tenacity, intelligence and common sense, each of which has been critical to sustaining the family’s livelihood for more than a century and a half, and sustaining, as well, a black Angus herd that at times each year swells to more than 1,000 animals.
“We continually try to improve ourselves and our ability to make an income, and to do so we have to improve our animals,’’ Ross Goldsmith said the other day as he guided his improbably dust-shrouded pickup through the picturesque southeast.
This is limestone country, highlighted by springs and sinkholes, creeks and rivers. Crops are grown here, corn and soybeans, but not with the bullish yields known to western Minnesota’s flatlander farmers.
Better hereabouts, the Goldsmiths believe, to keep grass on the ground for pasturing and feedstock, with a lesser emphasis on cash cropping.
“To benefit ourselves and our animals, we try to do things that benefit the environment and especially water quality,’’ Goldsmith said. “These are things we’ve done all of our lives, as my father did and also my grandfather. To keep what we have, and to make it better, we have to be forward-looking about conservation, especially about water.’’
Returning grass to at least a modicum of southern and western Minnesota’s heavily cropped farmlands is a priority of the Department of Natural Resources, as well as the state Board of Water and Soil Resources and various federal conservation agencies.
Grass holds soil together, reducing erosion, and benefits wildlife, including songbirds, pheasants and ducks.
When planted in rotation to corn and soybeans, grass encourages soil fertility, boosting its organic matter.
The irony, as the Goldsmiths know too well, is that — however much grass might be cherished by state and federal natural resource managers — its presence often is discouraged by other arms of the same governments.
Property taxes on agricultural land, for example, sometimes are based on a parcel’s ability to grow such crops as corn and soybeans — even if the ground is covered with less-profitable grass.
The recent increase of southeast land sales for hunting and other recreation also can affect property taxes, as it can the properties themselves, some of which, once idled from cropping, soon are covered in buckthorn and trees, neither of which holds water like grass.
“Regardless of the taxes, some of us are stubborn enough to keep doing what we are doing with livestock,’’ Goldsmith said. “But to a lot of farmers, the dollar does make a difference. The truth is, if they want grass, they should incentivize it more.’’
• • •
The construction in recent years of a large “monoslope’’ building is one example of the Goldsmiths’ integrated land and livestock stewardship.
A large, three-sided structure with a concrete floor, a monoslope building captures sunlight in winter, while providing a warm, airy haven from inclement weather for the Goldsmiths’ cattle.
The structures also provides a mud-free place for mother cows to calve in spring.
“Mud is our enemy,’’ Goldsmith said. “It’s hard on livestock, and when it rains in spring, the rainwater can flow through the manure and eventually into a river. Controlling manure with the monoslope building helps prevent that, and also allows us to capture the manure and spread it on our cropland.
“It’s all part of a circle. We take care of our cattle, and we take care of our land, and by doing so we take care of ourselves.’’
In December — about now — calves born in spring are brought to a 100-foot- by-180-foot finishing barn the Goldsmiths built themselves. There, the animals will be fed homegrown silage until being marketed in September at a Lanesboro, Minn., sale barn.
It’s a good life, Goldsmith said.
“Sometimes on Sundays I’ll ride my four-wheeler into a pasture to check on cows and calves,’’ he said. “I get more enjoyment out of seeing those animals than a golfer does playing a round of golf.’’