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Take a wetlands tour

John Walter 02/16/2012 @ 9:50am

0n a hot, dry day when many farmers are starting to get ready for harvest, Ray McCormick is more than happy to take time out to talk about wetlands conservation.

He jumps in his pickup and begins an afternoon-long tour of one of the largest wetlands protection efforts ever undertaken on private land in the U.S.

The tract is in Greene County, Indiana, about an hour’s drive from McCormick’s farm near Vincennes.

Beginning in 2005, with McCormick’s encouragement, the landowner of the property near Linton, Indiana, entered 7,200 acres into a permanent easement with the USDA. The wetland, now known as the Goose Pond Fish and Wildlife Area, has become a dramatic demonstration of the power of wetlands to attract wildlife, to offer broad public benefits, and to provide a revenue stream to landowners.

McCormick’s tour starts with a little lesson about the former farm’s soils. The land is made up of a poorly drained Zipp soil type. 

“For 100 years, they tried to farm it,” he says, kneeling down to look at the native wetlands plants it now produces. “They call it Zipp because that’s what it grew for crops,” he says with a laugh.

In 1990, McCormick was cited by Successful Farming magazine’s program, Farming in the Flyways, for conservation work on his farm. Practices he used then – and still does today – include flooding of bottomland fields after harvest for wildlife use, wetlands restorations, cover-crop use, and no-till. McCormick was the top winner in a program that recognized 168 farmers nationwide for their exemplary conservation work.

McCormick’s enthusiasm for conservation runs just as deep today. On every turn of the tour, he notes all the various benefits of the Goose Pond area – a fishing area here, a rare bird species nest over there.

“There’s an eastern box turtle,” he points out. “They’re in trouble.”

His narrative misses few details. He spots a patch of swamp milkweed, a wetlands plant that attracts bees. “Wetlands support the pollinators, which contribute to 70% of our food,” he says.

But McCormick doesn’t separate farming from nature. He spends time on the phone talking with his son about getting some machinery in order. He speaks at length about the importance of soil health in agriculture.

On his own farm, he tries to put every acre to its best use, using cover crops, no-till, and nutrient management on the cropland. His farm includes 2,000 acres of tillable land, 1,000 acres of woodlands, and 1,000 acres of wetlands. 

A long campaign

After his recognition by the Farming in the Flyways program in 1990, McCormick began a long campaign to convince other farmers to join him in protecting and restoring wetlands, says Dave Hudak, a former National Fish and Wildlife Service employee.

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