When I heard that Land Stewardship Project board member Loretta Jaus was being recognized by the White House this week as a “Champion of Change for Sustainable and Climate-Smart Agriculture,” I couldn’t think of a more deserving recipient. From the first time almost a decade ago that I visited the western Minnesota dairy operation she and Martin own and operate, I was struck by their commitment to balancing profitable farming with stewardship of the land.
An acute sense of the land ethic truly permeates everything they do—from the way they graze their cows and rotate crops, to the odd corners they’ve reclaimed as high quality wildlife habitat. Their conservation practices aren’t “add-ons” utilized to make an otherwise unsustainable operation a little greener—they are an integral part of the daily workings of this farm on par with producing good quality milk as efficiently as possible.
In a couple of articles (and one podcast) I’ve done on the Jauses over the years, I’ve attempted to capture the essence of what they are doing, and the challenges of being a bit of an island of biodiversity in a monocultural sea of corn and soybeans. Below is one such attempt. As with any written representation of something as complex as a farm, it falls short. But hopefully it gives a sense of why farmers like Loretta and Martin Jaus are worth supporting and, occasionally, recognizing on a national stage:
A Wildly Successful Farm
It’s a hot summer day, and Loretta and Martin Jaus take a break from crop work on their western Minnesota dairy farm to stand in tall grass, listening and watching for signs of success on their operation. To the right is a straight-line gash of man-made ditch, the kind that’s common in this part of the state. Across the ditch is a cornfield sitting on a former lakebed, made possible by the artificial tile line drainage the ditch provides. But in front of the couple are ll acres of shaggy wildlife habitat: a mixture of prairie and wetland. It’s crackling with the sounds of bird life, including the buzzing zhee, zhee, zhee of the clay-colored sparrow, a relatively rare bird that is pretty picky about its habitat requirements.
Martin and Loretta are thrilled. They concede that back in 1993, when they restored this wetland on prime farmland, there were scratched heads and rolled eyes in the neighborhood. They are just a few miles from Renville County, the state’s number one corn and soybean producer.
“Does it make sense financially to take that 11 acres out of production?” Loretta asked me rhetorically as she watched birds flit around after insects. “No, but we need it. For us it just made good sense because it’s important for us to have diverse numbers and species of animals and plants on our farm. If the place is good for wildlife, then we know it’s good for us.”
Martin put it more bluntly: “If those sounds weren’t there, we would consider ourselves a failure.”
This is a wildly successful farm, plain and simple, but not solely because of those 11 acres of avian paradise. Or because of the small amphibian pond and dove pond they’ve established on odd corners of the farm or all of the bluebird boxes mounted on fence posts.
What makes the Jaus operation, and others like it, special, is its ability to integrate ecological health into the “working” aspects of the farm. This is not the typical attitude in the agricultural or environmental communities. The argument is often made that profitable farming and top quality wildlife habitat, for example, don’t mix. If we want to leave areas for birds, mammals and even frogs, goes this argument, the best thing to do is create remote wildlife refuges where no economic activity takes place. That way, farmers can be free to intensively cultivate every inch of their operations without having to worry about wetlands, shelterbelts and grassy nesting areas.
2 Views of Farming
Writing in the September 2008 issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, scientists from the Australian National University and Stanford University provide an extensive description of two dramatically contrasting manners of managing agricultural landscape.
In “land sparing,” land is farmed intensively—large-scale monocultural operations are used to produce high yields. In theory, sacrificing these farmlands for food, and increasingly fuel, production, makes it possible to set up nature reserves separate from the farmland on land that normally could not produce high yields of crops or livestock. Usually these reserves are owned or somehow managed by the government, since they do not produce the kind of income private landowners need. Or, in the case of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), the government pays the landowner not to farm the land.
“Wildlife friendly farming,” on contrast, is characterized by interconnecting patches of native vegetation scattered throughout the landscape and a high level of spatial heterogeneity—in other words, a diversity of crops in a range of small fields, retaining habitat features within the fields like buffer strips or scattered trees and habitat features along streams, travel lanes or field borders. The scientists writing in Frontiers point out that “wildlife-friendly farming” may or may not be undertaken to help wildlife. In the end it not only benefits various critters, but also provides numerous side ecological services like “bug banks” for pollination and cleaner water. Native prairie plants may provide nesting cover for pheasants, but they also provide year-round protection for the soil and trap greenhouse gases.
The downside to the wildlife friendly operation is it normally takes more land to produce the same amount of food, although scientists writing in Frontiers point out that many long-standing assumptions about sustainable farming methods being inherently low-yielding are being challenged. And research shows that diverse farming systems can produce numerous public goods besides food—flood protection, carbon sequestration, renewable energy and more vibrant rural communities, among other things.
A major downside to land sparing is that it tends to produce environmental problems and costs—excessive runoff, destruction of infrastructure, loss of pollinators, etc.—on the land that’s being intensively farmed. Sometimes those off-site impacts extend to downstream areas and overwhelm the habitat and recreational benefits provided by protected public land.
Stability & Resiliency
The Jaus operation would definitely be but in the “wildlife friendly farming” camp. During the growing season their 60-cow dairy herd gets its nutrition by grazing on a series of small paddocks utilizing a system called managed rotational grazing. By moving the cows frequently—sometimes as much as once a day—the animals don’t overgraze, allowing the grasses and forbs to recover. In addition, the urine and manure produced by the cows is spread evenly over the landscape, feeding the soil’s biology without overwhelming the land’s ability to make use of the fertility.
Over the years, the Jauses have planted five miles of shelterbelts on the 410-acre farm. These trees provide wildlife habitat, but also shelter their cows and prevent soil erosion on their crop fields. They’ve even planted native prairie grasses in their pastures. And since they are certified organic, there are no pesticides present on their farm to kill insects. That means there is plenty of food for birds and other animals to thrive on.
“The more diverse the plant and animal species, the more stable, including stability for the farm,” Loretta told me during one of my visits to the farm over the years.
Plant and animal diversity helps them break up pest cycles. For example, the tree swallows that thrive on their pastures help control flies and other insects. They also have in place a crop rotation system that not only protects wildlife, but is good for all the subsurface critters that help make good soil. The Jauses see row crops such as corn as soil depleters, small grains such as oats as relatively soil neutral, and grasses, hay and other perennial forages as soil builders.
“So with our crop rotation overall we try to be soil neutral—some years we deplete, some years we build up,” Martin explained.
The soil-friendly system has paid off. They are at the headwaters of the middle branch of the Rush River; the Minnesota River is 23 miles south of their farm. The Minnesota, which eventually dumps its load into the Mississippi River in the Twin Cities, is considered one of the most polluted waterways in the Midwest, due in large part to the fact that it flows through an area that’s intensely farmed.
Back in their kitchen, the Jauses pull out a pair of photographs. One shows water flowing out of a pipe that drains the land planted to row crops down the road. It is saturated with chocolate brown sediment and the volume is so great that the pipe’s mouth isn’t visible. The other photo is of water leaving one of the Jaus pastures. The flow is low and clear. Martin and Loretta are low-key and humble—the opposite of show-offy. But a few years after those pictures were taken, in a don’t-try-this-at-home moment, Martin allowed himself to be photographed drinking water straight out of a tile line draining one of his pastures. He’s still around to tell the tale.
They have recorded over 200 species of birds on the farm over the years, including increasingly rare loggerhead shrikes and, most recently, egrets. They notice numerous mammals, including lesser-known species like meadow jumping mice. Even frogs and other amphibians, key indicators of the health of the environment, are making a comeback. A research team from South Dakota State University has come out to study the Jaus wetland and was excited to find clay-colored sparrows, which are increasingly hard to find in farm country.
The Jaus farm is proving that wildly successful is more than a nice sounding, feel-good term. “I grew up on the farm and I always loved wildlife,” Martin said while giving a tour one day. “We’ve done a lot of little things. Somehow it’s all come together. Normally when you think of conservation projects you think of areas like this that are just set aside for wildlife,” he added, gesturing toward the 11 acres of prairie and wetland they’ve returned to a natural state. “But a well-managed pasture is also a conservation area. There are different ways a farm can help the environment.”
To Martin and Loretta, such prioritizing is not a sacrifice, it’s a perk of the job. On an early fall day, while leading a group of natural resource professionals representing various agencies—U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the local Soil and Water Conservation District and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service—through one of his dairy pastures, Martin made it clear he farms the land for more than a milk check.
“Every day we see something that just amazes us,” he said with a smile. “One day I was making hay and I had four raptors strike mice within 20 feet of the tractor. It was two red-tails, a swainson’s and a kestrel. A lot of people don’t get to see that.”
He then walked the group over to a hayfield and used a potato fork to turn over a fragrant, double-handful of black, black soil. It was seething with worms, bugs, roots and the stuff of life. Given the right circumstances, soil can be so buzzing with life that it can literally create an electrical current, and this clump was high voltage. The clean smell of actinobacteria—a sign the soil’s organic matter was so healthy it was cooking up its own fertility—wafted up from Martin’s hands. People crowded in to eye it and take in the sweet fragrance like it was vintage wine.
Such images can stay with people long after they’ve gone back to their office cubicles to wrestle with the daunting task of protecting the landscape. On the ride back to the Twin Cities, a DNR staffer discussed why it’s so important that natural resource professionals see how excited a farmer gets over good soil quality and witnessing a raptor strike just a few feet from the tractor.
“They have to realize farmers are out there on this land every day observing what’s going on,” she said.
Brian DeVore is the editor of the Land Stewardship Letter.