OKABENA (AP) -- For most of his life, Dale Aden farmed the rich soils of his native Jackson County the way everyone else did -- he grew corn and soybeans. He tilled nearly all of his 320 acres outside Okabena, even marginal land that was prone to flooding from nearby Okabena Creek.
"The farmer's idea is to basically farm everything because you have to have cash to pay for the land," Aden said. "That's his attitude because he has to make a living."
But four years ago, as he was nearing retirement, Aden had an epiphany of sorts. Why not stop farming the flood-prone land and put it aside for wildlife? He had already applied for a state grant called Reinvest in Minnesota that would pay him to idle his least productive soil. Now 180 acres have been permanently retired from crop production and turned into wildlife-friendly prairie grass.
But Aden didn't stop there. He began planting trees and shrubs, he broke drainage tiles and restored wetlands. He contacted a company called Prairie Land Management, which gave him ideas and a blueprint for improving wildlife habitat on his property.
Based in Glenwood, PLM offers an unusual service: It helps landowners create wildlife habitat while returning some money on their investment. PLM owner Kyle Thompson sat down with Aden and wrote up a plan for how the farmer could leverage programs that would help pay for the habitat transformation.
One of those programs called for raising native grass seed. So Aden raises big bluestem and other native grasses, which PLM purchases and harvests for resale. The check for the grass seed from the 34 acres is about the same amount he'd earn if he leased the land for corn production.
Aden now watches pheasants, jack rabbits and songbirds flock to his prairies, and he makes a little money to boot. His property has become a local showcase for how less-productive land can be alternatively farmed for wildlife.
"Jackson County is pretty much about farming," Aden said. "You won't find a farmer who'll take 160 acres of perfect ground out of production, but this is what you can do with the marginal stuff."
Aden is a new breed of conservation-oriented Minnesota farmer, but you could hardly describe him as the beginning of an agrarian revolution.
Drive through Jackson County or most southern Minnesota counties this time of year and you'll see the by-product of intense row crop production -- miles of black soil, plowed from fence line to fence line.
But there's a hint of a new conservation ethic in Minnesota's farmlands, one that is difficult to quantify statistically but easily observed and described by those close to the farming community.
"Things are changing a little bit; it's not a lot of land, but we can see it going on," said Joe Stengel, a conservationist with the Renville County Soil and Water Conservation District. "It's either people who want to develop a place for hunting or they want to leave a legacy. In some cases, it's big producers who want to do something different with their least productive land."
Four years ago, Tom Niemiec of St. Paul bought 80 acres of farmland in southeast Minnesota's Fillmore County with the idea of turning it into a wildlife haven.
"I've always wanted to buy a piece of farm property and turn back the clock on it," said Niemiec, an investment banker. "About 47 acres of the 80 was tilled, but now about 26 acres is tilled. There are some turkeys on the property, a growing pheasant population and some deer."
After developing a habitat plan with PLM, Niemiec was able to get some of the land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, a federal program that pays landowners to idle erosion-prone marginal farmland.
A large tract of native prairie grass was planted this spring, and Niemiec has planted 3,000 trees, including black walnut, red oak, spruce and white pine.
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