Neighbors across the state are already making a big impact on pollinators and their habitat. Read more about their efforts. You can also take advantage of federal and state programs to help you establish new habitat.
For two Todd County landowners, renting a hard-to-find “no-till drill” through the Douglas County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) was one of the keys to getting their pollinator habitat projects off the ground. The special drill is needed to plant native grasses shallow enough so that they can germinate. The machine “drills” the seed into the ground by cutting a ¼-inch deep slot in the soil and dropping the seed. Though Dan Peyton and Karl Trampusch didn’t know one another before being connected by a Douglas County SWCD staffer, on June 12 they shared rental of the drill in the hope that their efforts will ultimately result in much needed pollinator habitat on both their farms.
A beekeeper works to strengthen hives.
Trampusch, a retired Long Prairie High School teacher, farmer and beekeeper, has seen his hives – and honey production – decline in recent years. “My honey production is down because I’ve had to start with new colonies the last few springs. If you can get the bees through the winter, they’re much stronger and can produce more honey,” he says. Lack of sufficient habitat is one of the reasons colonies don’t always survive Minnesota winters.
Over the 20 years Trampusch has been beekeeping, he’s gone from 12 colonies at his peak down to four in recent years. He started seven new hives this year and has also introduced beekeeping to his son, Steve, whose hobby farm is just a few miles away.
Trampusch hopes to keep the hives strong enough to survive through next winter. One of his strategies is to plant more pollinator habitat on his 100-acre farm. “I already have lots of basswood which is a nice honey-making flower for bees: basswood honey is a bit lighter than clover and significantly lighter than buckwheat,” says Trampusch. “And I’ll have golden rod and sumac in the fall.” But his bees need a more diverse mix of flowering plants to sustain them through the growing season and the long winter. So he planted alfalfa, two types of white clover and one type of red clover this past spring, and with the seeding on June 12, he has converted 17 of his 100 acres to pollinator habitat.
Plan for erodible land will help bees and other pollinators.
Peyton may not be a beekeeper like Trampusch, but he also wants to increase pollinator habitat on his farm. Of the 400 acres he farms, Peyton owns 160 acres himself and rents the rest from other landowners. “I’ve been using a no-till method successfully for the last 17 years – using a two-crop rotation from corn to beans without tilling between seasons,” says Peyton. About 17½ acres of one of his 75-acre fields sit on a hillside, however, and could be considered highly erodible. So he decided to take those acres out of production and add pollinator habitat to slow the erosion and preserve the hillside.
Peyton and Trampusch are enrolled in the USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP), and both men credit Sabin Adams, a Farm Bill Wildlife Biologist with Pheasants Forever, with helping them access funding for their pollinator habitat projects.
Adams sees the toll that increased agricultural demand has taken on habitat for pollinators and other wildlife. “Having farmers like Dan Peyton take acres of highly erodible cropland out of production and plant pollinator habitat is a win for farmers, pollinators, wildlife and everyone,” says Adams. A partnership with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the Todd County SWCD enables Pheasants Forever to provide biologists in the field, working alongside other conservation staff, to help landowners acquire funding and provide them with technical advice on achieving their conservation goals.
Although thistle provides a good source of pollen and nectar for bees, both Trampusch and Peyton will work to control thistle and other weed growth on the newly seeded plots. “Native grass and forb (herbaceous flowering plants) planting requires patience,” advises Adams. “These plants like to establish large root systems before they start putting on above-ground growth. In the first year and second year, most of what people see will be weeds like thistle, which need to be controlled to give the planted natives a chance. Once the native plants take hold, however, they are very good at choking out those weeds.”
Peyton and Trampusch aren’t the only landowners establishing pollinator habitat in the area. “We have a large number of beekeepers in Todd County, which has made pollinator programs more popular for beekeepers and farmers alike,” Adams says. “If you drive down any gravel road for a few miles you will likely run into a honeybee hive.” Adams is pleased with the momentum and anticipates that about four or five hundred acres of pollinator habitat will be planted through various programs in Todd County this year.
Thanks to the Clear Lake Township board, what started out as a plain field has transformed into a flourishing park with walking paths and pollinator habitat.
The Clear Lake Township Park covers 39 acres in Sherburne County, Minnesota. About 12 years ago, the board decided to maintain the park for walking paths while prohibiting motorized vehicles.
A park committee suggested planting native grasses and wildflowers, so the board called in the local Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) for advice on what to plant. They concentrated on the 20-acre east half of the park, saving the west half for future development, possibly ball fields.
The board performed a five-year burn (the best way to get native grasses started) and the grasses came back strong. They then planted other grasses, wildflowers and evergreen trees, and every year they plant another 20-25 spruce and Norway pines. “It's a continuous project,” says Bud Stimmler, a board member and caretaker of the park.
Stimmler credits the SWCD as a great resource for the project. They also utilize work groups from the Sentence to Serve program out of the Sherburne County Jail to help maintain the park. In addition, there are several volunteers who help to water the new trees alongside Stimmler. “It requires a lot of labor, but Mother Nature takes care of the grasses and wildflowers,” he notes.
The snowbirds who summer in a recreational trailer area near the park enjoy the walking paths, and a dog park was built a few years ago. Common milkweed, which attracts butterflies, grows in the park, and Stimmler is working with the SWCD to plant another species of milkweed to further help the butterflies.
Stimmler notes that undertakings like this can be costly because it is expensive to get the right quality prairie grass and wildflowers. His advice to others who want to plant native habitats? “It takes time; you have to be patient. And you have to take care of it.” But in observing the colorful wildflowers in bloom, Stimmler is aware the efforts have paid off. “It's all worth it,” he says.
The first thing that’s striking about Carmen Fernholz of A-Frame Farms in Madison, Minnesota, is that, even after 40 years as a farmer, he’s still actively engaged in learning – in this case, about the plight of Minnesota’s insect pollinators.
On his desk are two books he began reading over the winter: Attracting Native Pollinators and Farming with Native Beneficial Insects, both Xerces Society Guides.
He’s reading them even though his 400-acre organic farm (350 acres of it tillable) sports terrific habitat for pollinators: a 30-acre restored prairie and wetlands. This is in addition to his farm’s regular crop rotation of soybeans, corn, oats, barley, flax and alfalfa – all of it certified organic.
Says Fernholz, “We have to become much better at understanding the whole systems approach to food production.” He cites early research by Dr. Matt Liebman of Iowa State University, about how field mice and ground beetles eat up weed seed. “That got my mind going because it connects insects with the whole system. That’s why I’ve always been interested in finding out more, and asking more questions,” he says.
Despite decades of success at doing what he loves, Fernholz is humble about what he knows, and about what he’s still learning. After growing up on a nearby farm, he began his farming career in 1971 working for his uncle Jerry Fernholz. Early on, they worked together to restore a prairie under the Conservation Resource Program (CRP), through the local National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) office. Under the CRP program, they received cost-sharing assistance with planting, as well as ongoing rental payments – both of which helped tremendously.
At first, the two men added tall native grasses; later they added several species of native prairie flowers. That prairie has flourished for two decades now. “I don’t know all of the names,” Fernholz says, “I just enjoy how they look.”
Today, on his own A-Frame Farm, which includes the prairie and the land he farmed with his uncle, Fernholz continues his longstanding work with native prairies. This year, under the Conservation Stewardship Program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), he will be adding 2.8 acres of pollinator plantings. His plans call for two 30-foot by 2,000-foot field plots on the east borders of two different fields – areas that won’t be disturbed by regular passes through with the tractor.
His deadline for planting is September 30, but he’s planning to begin tillage in the next 30 days. “Because we’re organic, I don’t want to use any chemicals to kill the weeds there. I’m going to try to get them planted no later than the 4th of July,” Fernholz says.
“I’ve been listening and reading about the pollinator issue, plus getting input from my daughters, Connie and Kathryn, who are very engaged in this. It’s clear that insect pollinators are important and contribute to the productive capacity of our farm.”
For other farmers interested in pollinator-friendly plantings, he recommends taking the first step of walking into their local NRCS office.
“Unless you go in there and ask, you won’t be aware of the resources. It takes initiative on your part – so this is a great first step,” he says. “I’ve had a very good relationship with my local office.”
Jim Benson isn’t a conservation expert; he simply saw a problem and knew he wanted to be a part of the solution. “What I try to tell my kids is that we don't own anything,” Benson says. “We just have the privilege of taking care of it for a while, so we should leave it better than we found it.”
Benson owns eight acres of land on the west side of Fairy Lake in Kandota Township, Minn. His dad was the first to build a cabin on the lake and Benson spent a lot of time at that cabin, just five miles from his hometown of Sauk Centre. Benson feels a strong attachment to Fairy Lake and wants to make sure what little land he has is well cared for. Natural lakeshore areas, such as Benson’s, are highly sought after for development, where they typically become homes, garages, lawns and beaches. These areas very seldom include pollinator friendly plants.
Benson has named the land “Legacy Point,” though his family still lovingly refers to it as “Jimmy’s Point.” The goal is to make the land his family’s legacy and an oasis for others on the lake. Rather than putting the land in a trust, he wants his family to tend to it through the generations.
Late last year, Benson connected with Sabin Adams, a Farm Bill Wildlife Biologist with Pheasants Forever, and started discussing ideas for conserving the land. Adams suggested applying for a grant to do a native planting for pollinators. Benson applied for the grant and contributed some of his own funds to make the project a reality. This grant is part of a larger grant awarded to Pheasants Forever to do pollinator habitat projects.
Now, the project is finally taking shape. The Todd County Pheasants Forever Chapter hosted a youth seeding day on Saturday, June 27, at 10 a.m.
Pheasants Forever’s Youth Pollinator Habitat Program aims to provide support to more than 750 grassroots chapters across the country to engage youth groups, families and communities in establishing pollinator habitat projects. For Benson’s Legacy Point Conservation Project, approximately 30 students from the Long Prairie community education program spread a high diversity mix of native grasses and flowers, with emphasis on plants that will provide pollinator habitat. The students will return for the next five summers to continue planting and maintaining the land.
Locals have bought in and are taking ownership as well. Recently, when a local man found out why he was hired to plow Benson’s field, he offered to do the service at cost, saying, “Anything to get kids out in nature.” In addition to neighbors in Todd County and Pheasants Forever, project partners include Du Pont Pioneer, Sport Dog and Minnesota Habitat Management.
“Without Sabin, though, this project wouldn't have had a chance,” Benson notes gratefully. “He’s been helping with the grants, he found the right mix of pollinator friendly plants for the soil, and he’s been coordinating with the community education program.”
“Everyone has an emotional attachment to this area – that’s the catalyst for getting this going,” Benson says. Pollinator conservation efforts are starting to pick up speed now, too. “I believe we have four or five hundred acres of pollinator habitat to be planted in Todd County this year through various programs,” says Adams. “We have a large number of beekeepers and I think that has made pollinator programs more popular.”
As agricultural demand increases though, fewer and fewer spaces are being set aside to provide habitat for pollinators and other wildlife. Projects such as Benson’s provide much needed pollinator friendly plants while also protecting sensitive lakeshore areas from development.
For those interested in getting involved, Adams suggests reaching out to professionals in their area. Many counties have National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) and Pheasants Forever employees available to assist them, with programs designed to help landowners acquire funding and technical advice to achieve their conservation goals.
“I just wish we could get others to see that preserving pollinator habitats is in everyone’s best interest,” Benson says.