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Convert a Corner of Your Land for Conservation Payoff


For marginal lands, money is available to convert a corner of your farm into other purposes – including habitat.

The case for wildlife habitat establishment has turned down a different path in a time of below-breakeven corn prices, according to farmers and conservationists. 

When he talks to farmers these days, Pete Berthelsen, director of habitat partnerships for Pheasants Forever, shows an example of a current yield map from a farm with five years of data. The map clearly shows, he says, how marginal areas of a farm can drag down net returns. He makes the case that these fringes of a farm enrolled in the CRP, or some other conservation program, can improve your bottom line.  

You don’t have to enroll the whole field. “Farm the best, and conserve the rest,” he says.

More and more, farmers appear to be buying that idea. At the National Pheasant Fest and Quail Classic event in Des Moines this winter, a number of Iowa farmers were cited for their exemplary work with wildlife habitat. The group was cited for establishing an impressive array of practices, including buffer strips, wetland restorations, shrub and tree plantings, pollinator habitat, and prairie plantings. 

Their work, and that of many others around the country, points to at least five reasons for you to consider creating a conservation corner for wildlife habitat.  

1. Cut your losses. Seth Watkins of Taylor County, Iowa, operates his place as one of a number of Iowa Learning Farms, which are set up around the state to demonstrate the value of conservation. He agrees with Berthelsen that marginal niches of a farm are a drag on profits. 

Use your yield maps to target the “weak areas,” he says. “You might have a farm that averages 180-bushel corn, but you have two thirds of the ground that’s producing more than 200 bushels, and maybe a third that’s getting less than a 100 bushels. You might find you can make more money by doing less.”

2. Streamline your fieldwork. Look at wildlife habitat as a way to “shore up or square up fields,” says Scott Engleman, a Pheasants Forever farm bill wildlife biologist in northern Missouri. You can get paid in the process. 

For establishing habitat buffers in the continuous CRP, farmers in Engleman’s area are receiving a signing bonus of $250 per acre, on top of annual rental rates that range from $100 to $110 per acre. Rougher ground, field edges, and flood-prone areas are perfect for such practices. 

“There is room for conservation on every farm,” he says. 

3. Work with Mother Nature. One promising example comes with establishing habitat that benefits honeybees, native bees, and the other creatures that pollinate crops. 

Preliminary research gives evidence that bees in soybeans can increase yields by 10% to 30%, says Matt O’Neal, Iowa State University entomologist.

4. Diversify your revenue. Payments from the CRP and other conservation programs can balance your farm portfolio. Alternative enterprises become possible, too.

Watkins operates an outfitting service and a land mitigation business, along with a commercial cow-calf operation and his custom-farming work.

5. Gain long-term dividends. Land with healthy soils and a diversity of crops and habitat will be more valuable in the long run, Watkins believes. “We look at land as a true long-term investment, like a bar of gold,” he says. “There’s an economic factor in ‘going long.’ ”

For many, farming is not only about dollars. A recent ag economics study showed that along with self-interest, farmers are also motivated to act out of empathy for others, for a greater good. 

When asked why he was planting prairie flowers on former cropland, Nebraska farmer Roger Tupper, who was an early adapter in establishing pollinator habitat on his CRP acres, says, “I think everybody has to try to do a little good in the world.”


This article begins a series of stories, online coverage, and television programming on farmers’ efforts to establish and conserve working lands. Check back in upcoming months for more!




















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