The 3 Ps of Farmland Conservation: Passion, Policy & Price

While leading a group of natural resource professionals through one of his dairy pastures one early fall day, Martin Jaus made it crystal 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.”

In his characteristically understated way, Martin was describing the passion that drives he and his wife Loretta to get up every morning on their Sibley County farm and milk some 70 cows twice-a-day, seven-days-a-week, while managing over 400 acres of pasture, hay ground, field crops and assorted “natural areas.”

It’s those natural areas that make it worthwhile to put up with long days in the barn and field, say the Jauses. And it was those natural areas that had brought a dozen or so folks from the Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the local Soil and Water Conservation District office to the Jaus farm for this Land Stewardship Project tour.

LSP and the Jaus family saw this as an opportunity to show that working farmland can be a haven for wildlife. But we also wanted to hold an open-field discussion on what it would take to spawn more farms like this, particularly in western Minnesota, which is viewed as a “black desert” of corn and soybean fields by a lot of people concerned about the environment.

The Jauses pitched plenty of discussion fodder by leading off the day with a tour of the habitat they’ve weaved amongst their crop fields and grazing paddocks during the past three decades. Specifically, we took a look at tree shelterbelts, restored prairie and wetland habitat, and a few small touches like a pond dug for amphibians and another for mourning doves.

“I grew up on the farm and I always loved wildlife,” said Martin. “We’ve done a lot of little things. Somehow it’s all come together.”

It’s come together enough to make a farm that is not only financially viable, but a place where over 200 species of birds have been recorded. It’s also a place where when Martin digs up a double handful of impossibly black soil, like he did on Tuesday, you swear the clump literally squirms with life.

Both he and Loretta have college degrees in wildlife management, and back in the 1970′s they never thought their love for wild critters—birds in particular—would find a home on the farm they took over from Martin’s family.

“I figured well, that was a waste of my wildlife degree,” recalled Loretta of what she was thinking when they first came back to the farm in 1980. “I’m going to be a farm wife now.”

Not exactly. Little-by-little over the years, the Jauses started making the conventional dairy operation into a wildlife haven. Some of their efforts had a very “practical” aspect to them, like when they planted five miles of shelterbelts. These lines of trees provide wildlife habitat, but they also dramatically cut wind erosion while providing shelter for their dairy cattle.

Other habitat restoration efforts were a little harder to justify agronomically, especially in a region that’s one of the top corn and soybean producing spots in the state. For example, an 11-acre mix of prairie and wetland they restored in 1993 is purely a love for wild things personified.

That habitat, which is adjacent to a county road, has raised a few eyebrows in the neighborhood over the years. “You get feedback from neighbors, some of it abrupt,” said Loretta with a nervous laugh.

One has to wonder what neighbors would think if they saw the small dove pond the Jauses have established in the back corner of a seven-acre patch of Conservation Reserve Program land? “We’ll get 400 to 500 doves in here on a summer evening,” Martin said.

The Jauses received a lot of government help to establish this habitat. They’ve utilized programs like Reinvest in Minnesota and the Conservation Reserve Program to make up for the lost crop and pasture acres that resulted from these restorations. Over the years they’ve also benefited from the expertise of local SWCD and NRCS personnel. And most recently Martin and Loretta have applied to the revamped Conservation Stewardship Program, which wrapped up its first nationwide sign-up Sept. 30. The Jaus farm would appear to be just the kind of operation CSP was developed for.

But the fact is, they’ve also had to deal with the economic penalty that results from taking land out of the federal commodity program, which rewards maximum production of row crops like corn. That hurts, especially when one considers all of the extra management and plain old elbow grease it takes to run a farm that is not just 400 acres of one or two row crops.

A good part of that financial sting has been alleviated by an organic price premium they receive for selling milk through the Organic Valley Cooperative. The Jauses went on the Organic Valley truck a dozen years ago, and it’s helped cover the costs of all that extra management, while making it possible for them to not farm fencerow-to-fencerow in order to stay financially solvent.

They’ve also discovered that organic milk production and treating a farm as a natural habitat work hand-in-hand, providing mutual benefits. For example, by building their soil’s organic matter with rotational grazing and diverse crop rotations, the Jauses find their crops are healthier and the water leaving the land is cleaner. And because they don’t use chemicals, there are more beneficial insects such as pollinators on the land, while all that bird habitat means there are plenty of winged denizens around to keep harmful bugs in check.

“These systems are so complex,” Loretta told the farm tour participants. “The way our organic systems feed into the ecosystem and vice versa is exciting.”

But it should be kept in mind that during the first decade and a half of their farming career, the Jauses were not getting rewarded through the marketplace for their extra efforts to steward the land. They had to tough out low prices and denial of certain government commodity payments.

As I walked the Jaus land this week, it occurred to me that for farms like this to thrive, three “Ps” are required: passion, policy and price.

There’s little doubt the first “P” is at the foundation of this farm’s success. During all those years when they were receiving the general commodity price for their milk, it was a passion for stewarding the land that kept the Jauses going.

Both Martin and Loretta made it clear more than once on Tuesday that if they couldn’t farm in a way that stewarded wildlife and other natural aspects of the landscape, they wouldn’t do it. That passion sustained them through all those times when the other two “Ps” weren’t pulling their weight.

Mostly policy has been a barrier, especially when the government makes it clear it values monocrops of corn more than a diverse mix of grass, hay, grains and trees. But policy has also helped the Jauses and farmers like them in the form of programs like CRP and RIM. And hopefully, it will help even more as CSP gets off the ground.

Finally, there’s the third “P” — price. Through organics, the marketplace is finally recognizing the extra care farmers like the Jauses are taking to ensure the land is agronomically and environmentally healthy long into the future. Martin and Loretta concede that organic consumers are helping cover the “cost” of their sustainable methods. Consumers of conventional foods are also paying a bill—it’s just more hidden, and eventually much costlier for us all.

After the farm tour, we sat down between a pond and the pastures and discussed how to make more farms like the Jauses the norm. All the “Ps” were touched on —from getting the word out to other stewardship farmers that there are others who share their passion for the land to reforming commodity policy to developing local food markets that, as LSP organizer Terry VanDerPol puts it, “bring eaters to the discussion.”

One exciting option for pulling these three Ps together is the Working Lands Initiative, which is an example of government agencies like the DNR and Fish and Wildlife Service partnering with conservation groups, local units of government, and, most importantly, landowners, to figure out how to extend ecological services beyond the borders of private lands.

This partnership is having some good successes, particularly in Pope County, where people from vastly different backgrounds and skills are recognizing they often have the same goals in mind.

The Working Lands Initiative is a good start. But to get beyond the starting stage, we need to make a fourth “P” part of the equation: “push.”

Brian DeVore is the editor of the Land Stewardship Letter.