Farm Horizons, February 1999

Restoration of wetland benefits environment, farmer

By Luis Puga

John Schilling arrived in his pickup truck on the south end of his land. Greeting him were four cold people on a Friday morning.

Around them was nothing but pure white-washed farm land on a cold, windy day.

Schilling greeted one of them, and they began to do what most Minnesotans do: joke about the weather.

Schilling was talking to a survey team that came to his farm just south of Stewart. The team is from the Soil and Water Conservation District office in Glencoe, and they were there to restore Schilling land to a wetland.

Schilling got the idea back in 1993. It was a wet year in the area, and due to a broken tile line, his land had flooded. Very quickly, some ducks had made it their home.

"The water wasn't there two days, and everything started moving in," he said.

Eventually, the line got fixed, but Schilling was reminded what that land used to be in his childhood.

"Back when I was growing up in the '60s and '70s, there was tremendous hunting around here," he said.

Ryan Frietag, the manager at the Soil and Water Conservation District, said he recalls Schilling coming into the Glencoe office. Schilling asked if his land qualified for a wetland restoration project he had seen in a magazine.

After discovering that it did, the project got underway.

Fast forward to present day, and Schilling is not considering whether to enroll his land, but how much.


Essentially, what Frietag and colleagues are creating is called prairie potholes. Each is a basin of water that will cover about 28 acres.

Add to that vegetation and about 100 years to restore the soil to its original state, and you will have a wetland.

The land is being developed is part of the Minnesota River basin. The part of the basin in McLeod County is about 50,000 acres south of Brownton and Stewart.

The river, due to the wishes of former Governor Arne Carlson, is to be cleaned up, and this small project is part of that initiative.

"One project isn't going to turn the Minnesota River into clear blue water by any means, but small projects like this may help," said Frietag.

The basin is essentially the area of water that runs off to the river. In this case, it is from the Highland Creek to the Rum River to the Minnesota.

By putting in a wetland, many benefits are accrued. For instance, wetlands are natural filters. Agricultural chemicals are absorbed by the soil and vegetation and broken down to more organic components. Silt is also filtered out of the water.

The wetland also creates more evaporation. This means less water that runs to the river. Further, the wetland stores a great deal of water which slows down the flow of the water to the river.

And of course, there is the wildlife. Perhaps not a benefit to the river, but an environmental bonus for the area.

For Schilling, that was one of the main motivators. Having lived on that land all his life, he remembered when ducks and pheasants were plentiful.

He said it was the intensity of farming, and the good crop prices that drove them away in the '70s; everyone was quick to drain wetlands, including the one he is restoring.

Now, he is more than anxious to see it restored.

He talked excitedly about the project and how he looks forward to it. After all, he said that farm prices are low anyhow, and there has been a glut of production.

"It's not the easiest route to farm," he said.

So with that, Schilling now discusses the planting of prairie grass and trees over beans and corns. In a sense, he is becoming a steward of the wetland. He will retain all the rights while the land is put into a 30-year easement by Wetland Reserve Program.

After that, it will be a perpetual easement with the Reinvest in Minnesota program.

During that time, both Frietag and Schilling hope to see the wildlife return. Frietag said, "Once they (the wildlife) find the area and start making homes there, you'll have quite a few different wildlife species out there."

This not only includes fowl, but muskrats, raccoons, deer, skunks and beavers as well. Wildlife that has not been seen there perhaps since settlers' days.

But the restoration has other benefits as well.

For Schilling, he gets payment for the easement; about 80 percent of the township value. This standard rate is based on an appraisal which Frietag mentions brings a landowner's out of pocket costs down.

Of course, not all landowners have the same sentimentality as Schilling. Frietag mentions that other landowners commit to restoration because of they have marginal ag land that will be more profitable as an easement.

Other reasons include a possible effect on flood control. While Frietag maintains it is unconfirmed, he knows it has some effect due to the wetlands storage of moisture.

Schilling is looking forward to the wildlife though. He said he won't be sticking up any "no hunting signs," but hopes people will use common sense and ask. After all, the land abuts his home and he will probably have cattle grazing on some of it.

Schilling said he is learning as he goes along.

He does know that he recommends the program which he believes not only helps the environment, but the farm economy and the farmer's personal economy positively.

Frietag said it will be a long time before the land actually looks like a wetland.

They hope to have the main work done by 2000. He predicts the vegetation will start sprouting a couple years after that.

As for Schilling, his only regret was that they did not start sooner. And he hopes others will follow his example.

"You're going to help wildlife for one thing, and you are probably going to the help yourself," he said.

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