Restoring Stewardship on a Worn-Out Farm

After a lifetime of working for others in agricultural jobs, and retired after a career with the postal service, Tom Hoekstra and his wife, Lisa, bought a 150-acre farm outside of Plainview in southeastern Minnesota. Tom was 59 when they bought the farm in 2009. Right after their purchase, they immediately went to work re-building the soil and enhancing wildlife habitat. Tom and Lisa recently shared some of their thoughts on restoring conservation to this run-down farm with Land Stewardship Project staff member Doug Nopar. Tom also added an analysis of the problems with our government’s farm programs:

Tom: “The farm had been corn and soybeans for a long time. They were going up and down the hills, causing lots of erosion. I knew enough when I bought the farm that the first thing I wanted to do was put in contour strips. As required by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, we had to make every-other-strip alfalfa, for a minimum of three years, but with hopes we would leave them in for at least five years. We still have them today. We rented the farm out for the first three years. The guy that rented the farm wasn't too happy with all the alfalfa, but I said, 'This is what this farm needs.' He complained a lot about crop yields too—that this farm was so poor that he could only get 40-bushel soybean yields, which was a byproduct of the poor farming practices done previously.

“After three years of watching someone else farming it, I could see that things weren’t going real good. So, I thought, I’ve worked on a lot of farms, maybe I should farm it. But I’d never been in the heart of it, ordering seed, fertilizer, etc., so it’s been a real learning process, and sometimes an expensive one. I’m going through the same things that 20-year-olds go through if they try to go out and buy a farm.”

Lisa: “There’s all these gifts out here that we’re given every single day, like walking out into the pollinator habitat and seeing the flowers. They’re planted for nobody. They’re out there for the bees. It’s a different concept. It’s so rewarding. You’re doing these things for different reasons and they’re totally unselfish. You’re just doing it to be a good steward and for no other reason. All those things that Tom does for the land…in the long run, it’s not for him. It’s for generations to come.”

Tom: “It’s been instilled in me, being a steward of the land. We have a huge responsibility, being stewards. For conservation and wildlife I’ve put in waterways, ponds, contour strips, pollinator habitat, changed the rotation by adding alfalfa and oats to the corn and soybean rotation, planted a 30-foot buffer strip around the edge of the woods, added 40 acres of native grasses and plants in the Conservation Reserve Program, and planted two acres of trees and shrubs.

“I can see both sides of it. When I was young, I used to work for a big cash grain farmer. There I learned all about filling in ditches and plowing up and down the hill. At one point, two of us were running 1,200 acres. So you know how well the ground was cared for. Up and down the hills. And that was a lot of land then for two people farming it. I could see what was happening. The soil all ran down there, and then the next spring, I couldn’t get across there with the tractor. Anyone that could see that would say, ‘This is not right.’ We’d fill the soil in and then it would happen again.

“A big part of the motivation for me is wildlife and its connection to the farm. It’s the deer and turkeys that are my real soft spot. For years, I’ve gone out to my friend’s farm that had contour strips and ponds. I could go out there and hunt — ducks, coon, deer. On my original employer’s land, there are no ducks or geese or chickens or rabbits within 100 miles of the place. It’s all corn and beans and bare ground.

“I’m interested in cover crops too, and this fall would have been perfect for cover crops. But it comes down to equipment. If I had the right piece of equipment, I could have done it. The soybeans got out early and it’s been summer-like weather ever since. In a perfect world, I’d go right behind the combine with a no-till drill and plant a cover crop. But the price of that equipment is standing in the way of me doing that right now.

“The Farm Bill needs to be changed. Period. I call it a milk check or a welfare check. The idea behind it is that because I plant an acre of corn I’m going to get a $75 check. That’s ridiculous. Then next year, I’m going to plant 2 acres, then 3 acres. Then the following year, I’m going to rent the neighbor’s 200 acres. That’s ridiculous. Corn and beans! You see the piles of it?

“If somebody should be subsidized, it’s these people that do rotational grazing and plant alfalfa and cover crops. Those are the people that should be getting the help and the subsidy. I’m not knocking the guys that plant 500 acres of corn — those are the rules of the game. But the welfare system needs to come out of that Farm Bill.”

Doug Nopar can be reached in LSP's Lewiston, Minn., office at 507-523-3366 or via e-mail.