A low, soggy patch in one of Ritch Berkland’s fields will soon be transformed into a shallow wetland growing a wide diversity of native grasses. The wetland will help reduce erosion, improve water quality and provide excellent habitat for pheasants and other birds, Monarch butterflies and all sorts of wildlife. 

And temporarily idling the land, about 10 acres in all, won’t hurt the Palo Alto County farmer’s bottom line. In fact, because he enrolled the most problematic part of his field into the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) continuous Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), Berkland is likely to realize more income in rental payments from that area than he ever did struggling to raise crops on it. 

“I’m a big believer in promoting wildlife, and I also love to grow 240-bushel corn on land that’s suited for it,” said Berkland, a long-time conservation advocate in north central Iowa. “This way I’ll be able to do both.”

The decision to turn the area into a wetland wasn’t difficult for Berkland and his wife, Cynthia, after they examined the numbers.

The Berklands worked with Josh Divan, precision ag and conservation specialist for Pheasants Forever in Iowa, to analyze the 80-acre field just west of their homeplace near Cylinder. Farmers interested in improving profitability share their precision data with the conservation group, and they use software to generate color-coded maps that can help provide a clearer view of the profit within each area of a field.

This technical assistance is available to farmers across the state at no cost through a partnership of Pheasants Forever and the USDA’s National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Iowa.

Divan’s analysis showed that the low spot on the edge of Berkland’s field showed up bright red on the map, indicating it was unprofitable. With that information, the Berklands determined that enrolling the area in the continuous CRP made the most economic sense for them.  

“We are looking for better alternatives on those unprofitable parts of fields and, at the same time, find ways to both boost conservation and wildlife habitat,” Divan said. “The Farmable Wetland Program is a very targeted CRP program, and the land has to meet certain criteria to qualify, but little basins like the one on Ritch’s land works well.”

The recommendation didn’t surprise Berkland, a Palo Alto Farm Bureau member. Over the years, yield monitor data showed that the low spot was falling short on yields. He also knew that it would be costly and complicated to upgrade the area’s aging drainage tile. 

“It didn’t take a lot of arm twisting to get me in,” Berkland said. “I see it as a way to put some of the land in the CRP where it really belongs and work to make the rest of my land better.”

Many farmers in heavily tiled areas of north central Iowa are finding themselves in the same position, said Jeremy Thilges, a conservation specialist with the NRCS office in Palo Alto County.

When farmers, like Berkland, begin looking at several years of yield maps, especially profitability maps like those generated by Pheasants Forever and others using precision farming data, the decision to enroll problem acres in the continuous CRP becomes easier, Thilges said. The maps, he said, really help farmers pinpoint parts of fields that are losing money year after year.

“It doesn’t take very many acres of zero bushels to bring the average down on a farm,” Thilges said. “That helps farmers target with some of our conservation programs and, at the same time, try to increase their bottom line on the whole farm.”

The continuous Conservation Reserve Program has become an important tool for Iowa farmers, and that’s demonstrated by the fact that there are more contracts here than any other state in the U.S. With an average contract size of only 14 acres, Divan said it’s easy to see that it’s being used exactly as it was designed, to enroll specific areas within a larger field such as wetlands, filter strips and erodible hills. 

“Even if you are less excited about wildlife than Ritch is, most farmers can get excited about the financial impact of these targeted programs,” he said.

The Berklands began the process of turning the low spot into a shallow wetland on Nov. 1, right after harvest. Cornstalks were mowed down, and NRCS conservationists flagged the area so they could get started on the conversion. 

Divan said the converted areas are typically squared so the CRP area doesn’t make the remaining areas more challenging to farm. “It’s really paramount to make sure that participating in these programs improves the profitability and efficiency of the rest of the field,” he said.

The Berklands are also in the process of selecting plant species from The Prairie Flower, a native seed supplier in nearby Fostoria. “We’ll decide what makes sense to plant, with the NRCS office’s approvals, but you want to make sure you get seed that’s acclimated to your area,” Cynthia Berkland said. 

The new wetland is only one of three conservation projects that the Berklands are planning for 2021, and just a few of the many they have completed.

This spring, they are planting a prairie strip along the edge of one field near a creek to help control erosion. The prairie strip, Berkland said, is something that excites his brother Randy, a retired attorney in Minnesota who is part owner of some of the farm’s land. 

“He does not want the erosion off the field to get to the creek. He’s very interested in being a part of the solution to the water quality issue,” Berkland said.

They are also converting a couple smaller, unprofitable patches to wetlands. 

The smaller wetlands will still provide habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife too, Divan said. “People might think these pieces are very small and disjointed, but when you start putting them together, like Ritch and Cynthia have done, there is a very positive response in wildlife.”

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