CHOKIO, MINN. – Here in west-central Minnesota, farming changed forever in 1906 when Stevens County's best and brightest allowed Moose Island Lake to be drained, creating, along with an untold number of newly tillable acres, County Ditch No. 1.

"That was very controversial at the time, and it still is a thorn in the side of the county commissioners because it's always someone complaining about land getting too much water or not getting drained enough," Ward Voorhees, a federal soil scientist, said a while back, as quoted in the Stevens County Times newspaper. "This event really changed farming forever throughout the county."

No kidding, Randy Schmiesing said last week as he and I trekked a portion of the 720 acres he owns, either alone or with relatives, near Chokio, population 377.

Following Schmiesing's two yellow Labradors, Jaxson and Socks, we intended to roust a rooster pheasant or two within scattergun range, as challenging as that task can be in late season.

Schmiesing, 60, like most every farmer past or present in this part of the state, has a complicated relationship with water. This is especially true in Eldorado Township, where Schmiesing lives, because land there is nearly table-top flat.

Blanketed with switchgrass, restored wetlands and food plots, most of Schmiesing's property lies in contrast to the sections of tilled black dirt that otherwise bracket County Road 13 stretching north of Chokio.

A onetime U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resource Conservation Service district conservationist, Schmiesing concedes a bias for wildlife habitat. Yet his roots are in farming: He's lived on "the home place'' since 1963, when his dad farmed most of the property that he, or he and a brother and a niece, owns today.

"Dad drained everything he could on our property in the 1960s, through private ditches,'' Schmiesing said. "We raised wheat, corn, soybeans and sunflowers, and we had hogs and cattle.''

But when Schmiesing's dad died in 1981, yielding the operation to the younger Schmiesing, water increasingly interfered with crop production.

"It rained a lot and we had more and more flooding problems. It was hard to get crops in,'' he said.

By the late 1990s, subsurface tile systems designed to drain excess water from soil grew increasingly popular throughout Minnesota farmlands, as corrugated plastic tubes replaced the clay tiles of yesteryear.

Capable of increasing crop yields and thereby, over time, paying for themselves, tile systems nevertheless can cost about $1,000 an acre to install. On sloped lands, water gathered in tiles is often discharged into ditches, rivers or lakes, or even state wildlife management areas or federal waterfowl production areas, in many cases significantly diminishing their capacity to support fish and wildlife.

"In the old days, tiling never worked real well in our part of the state because we lacked slope,'' Schmiesing said. "You could collect the water with tiling, but it was harder to get it off your land.''

That changed with the advent of pumping systems that send tile water down the watershed. Meaning, in many cases, from one person's land to the next person's.

"Out here, because so many natural wetlands that historically held water have been drained, water is like a hot potato,'' said Bruce Freske, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Morris Wetland Management District manager. "It's tossed from one person to the next. Oftentimes, the people who end up with it are too poor to get rid of it, or it's dumped into a public body of water.''

Faced, ultimately, with deciding whether to tile his land and continue farming, or enroll much of his property in state and federal conservation programs, Schmiesing chose the latter.

"Tiling would have cost me $300,000 or more and I didn't want to do it,'' he said. "Besides, I like wildlife.''

The other day, Schmiesing fairly shouted these comments so he could be heard over the cold, early winter wind. We had walked a good while, putting up mostly hens, while roosters we flushed had jumped up too far ahead for a shot.

Now, nearing the east end of one of his half-sections where, just across the road, a neighbor's tile pump stands ready in spring to again flow water from his tiled land onto Schmiesing's, a gaudy cock bird rocketed airborne.

This was approximately where Schmiesing plans to restore a complex of interconnected wetlands.

"With the wetlands, I hope the water I get from my neighbor I can keep on my land and not send it downstream,'' he said.

Towing a contrail-length tail, the fast-departing rooster evaded my first shot, but fell to my second.

In hand, the bird's protracted spurs affirmed its status as a longtime beneficiary of Schmiesing's habitat work.

So it went.

Dennis Anderson