By Starrla Cray
LESTER PRAIRIE, MN It may look like Bill and Liz Schwarze live alone on their Bergen Township property, but after a few minutes on their scenic land, it’s easy to tell that isn’t the case.
A wild turkey struts happily through the prairie grass as a doe and her fawn nibble on a bit of corn. The sound of pheasants can be heard in the distance, and ducks splash contentedly in a nearby pond.
“I’ve always been interested in wildlife,” said Bill, a retired veterinarian who has lived on his hobby farm (three miles south of Lester Prairie) since 1974.
In those 35-plus years, the Schwarzes have made exceptional accomplishments in implementing conservation practices and improving Minnesota’s natural resources.
As a result, they were selected by the McLeod Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) as outstanding conservationists, and honored at the Minnesota Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts in St. Paul the first week in December.
“We had a very nice dinner,” Bill said. “They treated us royally.”
Bill and Liz weren’t expecting to win an award for their efforts, but members of the SWCD can attest to their worthiness.
“We’re really proud of Bill and Liz and what they have accomplished for conservation in McLeod County,” noted McLeod SWCD board chair Roger Schultz. “Mr. and Mrs. Schwarze provide a wonderful example for conservationists by demonstrating a genuine concern for the preservation of the ideal environment for current and future wildlife.”
McLeod SWCD board member Charles Mathews has lived a quarter mile from the Schwarze family for more than 20 years.
“Bill and Liz have always been great neighbors,” Mathews said. “I appreciate all the work they’ve done to keep the wildlife in this area thriving. Their generosity and care has helped make living in Bergen Township a real joy.”
In 1976, the Schwarzes dug seven wildlife ponds to create a habitat for ducks.
“That was the beginning,” Bill said.
Since then, Bill and Liz have diligently pursued conservation in a variety of ways.
They’ve planted more than 500 trees and shrubs, such as high bush cranberry, buffalo berry, crabapple, and cedar trees.
They’ve added conservation resource program (CRP) buffer strips, aided in water erosion management, provided thistle and young tree control, and much more.
“Providing wildlife habitats has been my focus,” Bill said.
He and Liz preserved 40 acres of virgin timbers for wildlife, created a nesting area for ducks, and were instrumental in the start of the local wild turkey population.
“The DNR released 21 turkeys from Caledonia on our property in 1994,” Bill said. “Now, I see a lot of them. When the toms are out strutting, it’s just so beautiful. They’re very colorful.”
Another notable contribution the Schwarzes have made is in the wildlife food supply.
“I have three acres of corn I plant every year in the same spot,” Bill said. “The turkeys, deer, and pheasants hang out there in the wintertime. They come from all directions.”
Bill’s corn, soybean, and rye food plots provide year-round sustenance for many animals.
“It looks like this year, they’re going to eat it all,” he laughed, explaining that typically, the leftovers are harvested and replanted for the next season.
“I’ve been doing this for 15 consecutive years,” he said. “I just think it’s the right thing to do.”
Bill has had many opportunities to sell his land for housing development, but he’s not interested in that type of arrangement.
“Initially, I had thought about it, but as I got older, I thought it would be nicer to preserve it,” he said.
Schwarzes’ property has a mix of lowland, higher nesting ground, and a small amount of farmland, which is rented out.
Years ago, Bill and his family enjoyed tapping the maple trees to make syrup. He hasn’t done it in awhile, but would like to give it another try this spring.
He and Liz will also be planting more trees this year.
“The actual planting of the trees doesn’t take much, but there’s a lot involved in maintenance,” Bill said. “When the trees are young, they need to be watered every week.”
The effort required to create a beautiful, natural environment is well worth it for the Schwarzes, however.
“We plan to keep the farm in the family,” Bill said, explaining that his adult children are also interested in wildlife preservation.
The SWCD, with support of The Farmer magazine, chose one individual, family, or organization from each Minnesota county for the 2010 outstanding conservationist award.
“It has been long overdue for Bill and Liz to be recognized for the things they have done,” McLeod SWCD program director Ryan Freitag noted.
To learn more, or to see a list of the other winners, go to www.maswcd.org.