Water and Relationships

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A guest piece by Climate Land Leader, Meg Nielsen

I’ve always felt really grounded in our farm in Minnesota that has been in my family since 1903. I grew up on the farm, and I remember helping my grandmother weed flowerbeds before I was old enough to go to school. I watched Dad scrape rich black earth from the plow when I was just a kid. I kept a garden with Mom. My sister and I made mud pies and played with kittens in the hay mow. l fed chickens, gathered eggs and milked cows. You go away – to school, to work, to build your own life – you lose touch with the farm a little bit, but it never really leaves you.

When Mom died in 2010 and Dad died in 2012, my sister and I inherited the farm. By then, all the animals were gone and only corn and soybeans were being raised by a local farmer who leased the land. Because of the people I have met throughout my life and the events that have shaped me over the years, I began to realize that I would like to try to break the cycle of growing monoculture crops on the acres I owned. I decided I had this wonderful gift of land and that it could be used to a better purpose than farming for the profit of big chemical companies. Over the past few years, my husband Glenn and I have made plans to implement conservation practices, add diversified crops, plant trees, and possibly introduce grazing animals.

We have learned many things as we set out on this venture of which we many not see the ending (we are both in our early 70s). One of them is that whether it’s doing an important project at work, volunteering at church, or trying to restore the land, relationships will make or break you. My dad loved his renter, Bill, and we want to honor that relationship. My sister owns adjacent family acres, and we want to nurture our relationship with her. We keep sharing our conservation ideals with them, but they aren’t always receptive. Even so, we will keep talking and live in the hope that they will eventually hear us. We realize that it might take a while. We hope it will be like water finding a path to the sea. Drop by drop, stream by stream, river by river, it picks up momentum and gains strength. In the end, not even rocks and boulders can stand in its way.  

When we first decided we wanted to do something with our land, a friend said, “Oh, you have to go to the University of Wisconsin and take a course on starting your own business.” I took his advice and enrolled in the course offered at the UW-Madison Small Business Development Center. Through that course, I learned about the Savanna Institute. Savanna Institute told us about Main Street Project (now Sharing our Roots). Through Sharing Our Roots, we found Ecological Design to help us plan. And Sharing Our Roots has led us to participation in Climate Land Leaders. We have grown a fertile crop of wonderful relationships over the past three years! Much like water finding its way downstream, one thing led to another forming an interconnectedness that grew stronger along the way.

Water management was our first lesson from Ecological Design. Successful water management forms the basis of a sound land management plan, they said. So, we signed up for an Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) contract to help with the costs of restoring a depleted waterway. During that process, we made friends with James Smith from the NRCS office in Owatonna. He’s happy with what we’re trying to do and is good at explaining it to our renter Bill. Joel Alicea-Hernandez in the Freeborn County NRCS office and Lindsey Zeitler and Brittany Dawson in the Freeborn County Soil and Water Conservation District office have become friends and have also been very helpful and extremely positive. Those relationships are essential. These people tell us we’re doing a good thing and they’re happy we’re doing it! What great affirmation! We need to hear from people who support what we’re doing.

We are also applying for the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program (MAWQCP). They, too, are impressed with what we want to do and the design we have so far.  Certification may make grant money available for future water improvement projects such as terraces and prairie strips. That application process required us to get information from our renter about the chemicals used on our land, amounts of fertilizer applied, and actual tilling practices. All of this centers around relationships. Relationships, like water, are not only basic, but vital to our hopes and future plans.

This year our goals include planting a windbreak to shield our fields from a neighboring field’s possible chemical drift. Ecological Design is working on a three-to-five-year plan for us. We are talking with a grazier who is interested in helping us get animals back on the land to restore bacteria and microbes essential to soil health. We are amazed at, and grateful for, how we have picked up speed, grafted on new ideas, and formed friendships along the way.

It’s pretty basic, but we’ve learned that in the beginning, it’s all about water, and as we continue the journey, it’s always about relationships – all the way along. It’s about creating a flow, listening to what water has to teach about persistence, being willing to find common ground and emphasizing the things we can accomplish together.

–Meg Nielsen owns land near Glenville, Minnesota and lives in McFarland, Wisconsin. Climate Land Leaders is an initiative of Sharing Our Roots.

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