5 Realities of Farmland Restoration

Turn your land—or at least part of it—back to its wild roots by taking steps to restore natural plants and habitats.

by Karen Lanier
PHOTO: jimmy brown/Flickr

Winnie the Pooh really knew his land. If you look at a map of the fictional Hundred Acre Wood, you’ll discover hidden gems, such as Sandy Pit Where Roo Plays and Area of Six Pine Trees. There’s also Bee Tree and Area of Big Stones and Rocks, and my personal favorite, Eeyore’s Gloomy Place. It seems there are habitats for all where Pooh lives.

This kind of diversity isn’t associated with conventional agriculture, yet many bright-eyed beginning farmers have dreams of integrating natural ecosystems and restoring wildlife habitat on their property.

In Kentucky, landowners Steve and Leah (who wish to keep their last name private) have created their own 100-acre woods. Four generations ago, it was a 500-acre farm where Steve’s ancestors raised tobacco, beef and dairy cows. As the family aged, the land was sold off in portions, and today, Steve and Leah are grateful to hold onto the remaining property. Farming is not their only passion: Land stewardship is, too. In the past 10 years, the couple has planted tens of thousands of hardwood trees, turning dusty rows of monoculture into a diverse, abundant forest, which required vision, knowledge, patience, and heart.

Here are some things to keep in mind if you are considering an ecological restoration project of your own.

1. Have a Restoration Goal in Mind

What is your desired ecosystem? Imagine lush woodlands bustling with birds and butterflies … cool streams meandering through orchards … leafy forests shading and stabilizing tired earth. How long do you want this ecosystem to thrive? Will you convert it back to crops at some point? What does your restored farmland vision look, sound and feel like?

Jacob and Carolyn Gahn, owners of Sweetgrass Granola, a small-batch granola company in Kentucky, grow sorghum to use in their products and also raise most of their own meat and vegetables. Their ultimate goal for their family farm is to create a closed-loop system for self-sufficiency.

Subscribe now

“We see ecosystem goals as larger than our farm,” Carolyn Gahn says. “It’s a whole community process that also includes a local food system, so we realize other farmers and consumers need to be involved with all of these goals.”

If you know what you want, you have started on your conservation path. To make your dreams reality, set short-, mid- and long-term goals. Short-term should include getting to know your neighbors and finding collaborators, while mid-term plans foresee the next decade and include a succession plan of introducing the right species at the right time. Long-term plans consider generations that will follow you and the legacy you will leave.

2. Get To Know People Who Can Help

Give your Garden of Eden dream a reality check with help from experts. Make a checklist of resources that provide knowledge and funding, then get ready to make some phone calls.

“With so many programs to choose from and many practices within each program, the best option is to go to your local USDA service center, where both FSA [Farm Service Agency] and NRCS [Natural Resources Conservation Service] are located, to get more information,” says Robert Hoffman, wildlife biologist and restoration consultant with Roundstone Native Seed. “After all, these will be the people you will be dealing with on your project and they may also be able to get you in contact with local conservation programs through your state, like your state wildlife agency, or even the county level programs through your local Soil and Water Conservation District. Most of the time they are located in the same office.”

Tyler Sanderson, a technician in Biosystems Engineering and Forestry, explains that certain states require permits for making any alterations to farmland, whereas others will allow plowing over ephemeral streams. It’s important to know the scale of your project and who else it will impact, even if you plan to implement it alone.

Depending on the goal of your project, branch out to include representatives from your state’s division of water, division of forestry, and the United States Geological Survey. Less obvious support may come from special interest groups, such as Ducks Unlimited, Trout Unlimited or the Nature Conservancy. Don’t overlook your local anglers’ associations, birding clubs, native plant enthusiasts and town governments, which may have various reasons to support natural habitats.

Steve and Leah consulted with the state’s department of forestry, which loaned them a tree transplanter to use with a tractor. It enabled them to plant 500 to 1,000 trees per acre, which they managed to do on weekends with a few extra helpers. The Gahns completed a Timber Stand Improvement project with help from the Kentucky Department of Forestry.

3. Understand Your Land and Water

To learn how your soil fits into a larger picture and how it affects your watershed, get a soil map from the USGS or use the Web Soil Survey, a user-friendly website that shares soil data from nearly every county in the U.S. and creates a customized report of your area. Some states have regional watershed coordinators, and they can work with you to understand the impact your projects will have downstream, and who is upstream from you and impacting your water quality.

Inventory all the problems on your land, even if they aren’t obviously connected to the area you want to restore. A conservation technician can help you identify inconspicuous assets. For example, invasive trees can be cut and run through a chipper to make mulch for fruit trees or garden paths. This clears out space for native plants to have a fighting chance while recycling the carbon energy captured in the woody material.

Ben Leffew, manager at Shaker Village, a unique property in Versailles, Ky., that includes a historic landmark, living museum and working farm, has helped work to restore 1,200 acres of native prairie and lease 750 acres of farmland and pasture. At the time the restoration project began in 2009, Leffew worked with the Kentucky Division of Fish and Wildlife, which was focusing on bobwhite quail habitat.

“We take a bottom-up approach,” Leffew explains. “Build the habitat and manage for pollinators and native grass, and the birds will show up.”

Along fence rows and in marginal areas of the Shaker Village property, native habitat for grassland songbirds is flourishing. Birders are also flocking to the site, which is a great ecotourism boost.

4. It Might Get Worse Before It Gets Better

Going native isn’t going to be pretty. Tyler Sanderson warns landowners to brace themselves for criticism. Even country neighbors expect neatness, and natural habitats can look woolly and scraggly as they grow into their own beauty. Hoffman warns that the most common mistake landowners make is not adequately preparing their seedbed. Several treatments of professionally applied herbicides and controlled burns may be required to bring an end to invasive species.

“Without giving proper consideration to the establishment of your project it may be doomed to fail,” Hoffman says. “This can be a reality check for some landowners because although you may decide this month you want to plant, it may take one to even two years before planting should begin.”

Steve and Leah can vouch for the transition period stretching out longer than expected. Steve points out a simple fact about trees: “They really grow slow!” The diverse tree species they selected, including ash, oak, hickory and fruit trees, mature at different rates. Ten years into their forest project, the tallest trees are reaching around 30 feet, and still require pruning.

5. Take Care of the Land and the Land Will Take Care of You

Your long-term goals should include the inheritors of your project. If you have children who will take over, make sure that they’re involved now. Results will take time, especially if you start a reforestation project.

“Three generations before us tried to clear trees off and here we are trying to plant them again,” Steve says. “We are trying to look seven generations down the road.”

The most important thing you can do with your land is to use it for education, so those around you can help build up the land. Teaching others can take many forms. Shaker Village allows hunting and hosts tours of their restoration projects, but you don’t have to run a living history farm to be a model for other landowners. Simply invite groups of friends over for work parties or volunteer to host an agricultural field day through your extension office. After all, even Winnie the Pooh’s Hundred Acre Wood still has a Floody Place. Maybe Tigger or Christopher Robin could help with stabilizing his streambank.

Read more about land management on HobbyFarms.com:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *