Judy Rose of Miltona, Minn., owns two quarter sections in North Dakota’s Nelson County— 320 acres of prairie pothole habitat in which she has maintained several areas of wetland. She is a participant in Land Stewardship Project’s Women Caring for the Land group of non-operating women landowners in the Pope County region of western Minnesota. Women Caring for the Land works to help women landowners and managers talk about their land stewardship goals, learn about soil and water quality, access professional resources, and feel empowered in the management of their land.
The farm is located on the Pembina Ridge just before the drop into the Red River Valley. Judy has preserved several wetlands on the property through her lease agreement and has watched the wetlands grow over the past 15 years due to increased rainfall in the region. She has all the deed history and knows who originally homesteaded the land.
That’s how Judy knows that the property has a tree claim planted under the Timber Culture Act, which Congress enacted in 1873 to follow the Homestead Act, allowing homesteaders up to another 160 acres if they planted trees on one-fourth of the land. Timber on the vast prairie was a scarce resource, and the Act helped keep people in place since it required at least five years to harvest any wood. Judy says “the notion of the day was also that timber would bring rain as similar to the belief that ‘rain follows the plow.’ ” On her farm, 20 acres were planted into trees, but fewer acres remain today and “they look downright anorexic”—a testament to their place in the grasslands.
Judy’s father obtained this property after renting and farming there for several years. In the early 1960s, he put it into the USDA Soil Bank program and rented other land for farming; that’s how her father was able to pay for the farm. The USDA started the Soil Bank program in the mid-1950s to deal with the problems of commodity surpluses. Farmers would voluntarily retire cropland and receive acreage rental payments from the government, which encouraged conservation, reduced surpluses and maintained basic farm income.
Judy grew up on that farm in the 1870s farmhouse, which was wired for electricity in 1950. Now she rents it to a man she babysat when she was a teenager. When her father and mother passed away, she bought out her siblings, who she feels never held any interest in the farm. Her sister was terrified of chicken feathers and her brother, who later went on to become an accountant, preferred machinery to working with animals and plants.
Judy feels that her “connection to the land is innate — it can be learned, but I was born to it.” She said she was always happy to be on the farm and spent most her time outside with her father. “I actually enjoyed shoveling out the barn,” she recalls. One of her favorite farm memories centered on a huge blizzard that struck the night of her birthday in December. She loved North Dakota winter storms: “The drama, the fact that it brought everything to a halt,” Judy says. The plowmen ran into the ditch right by their farm and were forced to spend the night, and “that was the party!”
Eventually, Judy went on to college and earned a history degree. She moved to Michigan with her husband, where she kept a big garden in her backyard, worked as a trail guide at the Chippewa Nature Center, and began her continuing involvement with the League of Women Voters. After retirement, Judy and her husband moved back to Minnesota to be closer to her land and their family. She feels that her relationship with her renter is a strong one; he has maintained the wetlands and her farm remains drain tile-free. She hopes to talk to him about cover crops for next season with the goal of building soil health.
Judy visits her land three or four times a year. No one lives on the farm anymore; the buildings were razed due to severe maintenance problems. When visiting, she and her husband stay in the area with friends or in hotels and surrounding small towns. During their visit they always walk the perimeters, see how the crops look, often plant trees in the tree claim, and check on the trees they planted before.
They keep track of birds and wildlife that they see on the farm. Recently, Judy spotted a short-eared owl: an evening feeder that lives on grasslands all over North America and looks remarkably like a small hawk. She is proud of the amount and varieties of ducks she sees in the wetlands. She hopes that someday, because of their location on the ridge, turbines will fund the retirement of the rest of the cropland back into prairie.
This is one of many stories from the women who are coming to Women Caring for the Land meetings LSP is sponsoring on an ongoing basis. Women come to the group for different reasons: education, community and/or support. Judy says, “I have come to the Women Caring for the Land sessions for probably the same kinds of reasons that I go to church. It is a spiritual connection.”
If you or someone you know would be interested in joining Women Caring For the Land, please contact LSP’s Rebecca Terk at 320-305-9685 or firstname.lastname@example.org.