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Tree Farmer Turns Old Farmstead into Showcase

Back in 1993, when John Heckmann and his family purchased the first half of their 800-acre farm near Hermann, few would have guessed that it one day would be used as a showcase. But on June 2 it will be the site of the annual Missouri Tree Farm Conference, and Heckmann will be recognized as the Tree Farmer of the Year.

“It was a typical old farmstead,” Heckmann says. “There were a lot of weeds; the woods were overgrown; there were cattle in the woods and in the creek.”

Heckmann, a partner in his family’s investment real estate company based in St. Louis, wasn’t interested in raising cattle or crop farming. But he saw the farm’s potential as a place for recreation. He built three small lakes on the property, and Bear Valley Farm became a spot for his family to hunt, fish and enjoy nature and the outdoors.

Then five years ago, the Warren County assessor gave Heckmann reason to make even more improvements to the land. Because Bear Valley Farm was not producing an agricultural product, the property was reclassified, causing property taxes to increase. The farm had plenty of timber, so Heckmann decided to turn the place into a tree farm.

“I’m managing my woods for timber and wildlife,” he says. “The objective is to have both wildlife and some type of income from the farm.”

With technical assistance from the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC), Heckmann started thinning the woods. That allows the remaining trees to reach their potential and also allows more sunlight to reach the forest floor and stimulate plant growth for wildlife to browse.

“After I did some preliminary work and wanted to get bigger, I needed some help,” Heckmann says. “MDC suggested that I go the NRCS office.”

Sarah Szachnieski, resource conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), told Heckmann about the technical and financial assistance that the USDA agency could provide.

“We started in 2008 with a contract under the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program to do timber stand improvement on a 20-acre field, and it just grew from there,” Szachnieski says.

She says that over the last four years, Heckmann has taken advantage of two other NRCS programs, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program. Through those three programs, NRCS provided Heckmann with about $77,000 in financial assistance and teamed with MDC to provide technical assistance to make improvements to nearly the entire farm. Szachnieski helped Heckmann plan and install some soil-erosion control practices on the farm, but most of improvements are the result of management techniques, especially controlled burns and timber stand improvements. By removing competition, glades have been restored, and native plants, including wildflowers, have re-emerged.

“It’s fascinating how well his farm has responded to burning,” Szachnieski says, adding that Heckmann’s attitude concerning letting nature do the work has been a key to the project’s success.

“He’s been a blast to work with. He’s always very interested in anything that you can teach him about plants and management techniques. He’s very interested in prescribed burning and what he can do to make plant communities return on their own.”

Heckmann says when he purchased the farm, he was interested in what he could do to create food plots.

“I found out that if you let the sunlight in and do the burning, all of a sudden you have one big food plot,” he says.

Heckmann says he has noticed an increase in small game on the farm, including rabbits, quail and squirrels. There are also wild turkeys and more large deer.

“Since we’ve done this work, we are holding more mature bucks in here during the deer season,” he says.

To ensure that the work he has done at Bear Valley Farm will never be lost to development, Heckmann signed a conservation easement with the National Wild Turkey Federation. The easement protects the property from being subdivided or developed.

“The primary reason for the easement is so that no one will mess the farm up in the future,” he says. “The secondary reason is that it will help with estate taxes.”

For now, though, Heckmann says he is happy for the opportunity to make Bear Valley Farm a better place than it was when he purchased it. He also enjoys the opportunities that the farm provides to him, his wife Stacy and their children, Grant, Megan and Trevor, to enjoy the outdoors away from the city.

Heckmann says he is thankful for the advice he received from NRCS, MDC, the National Wild Turkey Federation and The Quail and Upland Wildlife Federation in developing a management plan for Bear Valley Farm. He is also thankful for the financial assistance that allowed him to carry out the plan.

“I couldn’t have done all of this on my own,” he says. “We’ve been very fortunate to have Sarah and NRCS.”

Bear Valley Farm is a prime example of how good fortune and a desire to work with nature can turn a typical old farmstead into a showcase.

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