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Quail Hunter’s Treasure Prairie The Robertsons of Burnt Oak Lodge

porchpeoppleJohn Robertson had a very specific dream while growing up in Alabama.  As a great outdoors enthusiast, John dreamed of having his own place to bird hunt after he retired.  His ultimate goal was to find suitable land for an upland game/quail habitat hunting operation.  Finding such a place wasn’t an easy task; and he never imagined that after 40 years they would be leaving “sweet home Alabama” to realize that dream.  The Robertsons’ story of relocation, fulfilling a dream, and restoring native prairie grassland right here in Lowndes County, Mississippi, embraces adventure, perseverance, destiny, some sheer luck, and of course NRCS technical and program assistance.

The Robertson family, before John’s retirement from a civil engineering career, lived in Columbiana, Alabama, about 25 miles south of Birmingham.  Katie retired after many years as a fourth-grade school teacher.  In 2001, their son Jack was attending Mississippi State University in Starkville for a degree in forestry and wildlife management, and he happened upon the upcoming auction of 900 acres in the Black Belt Region of Mississippi (which included part of Alabama).  He thought the land would be perfect for his parents to retire on and fulfill their dream of a quail hunting venture, and it wasn’t too far away from his school either! 

The property which consisted of 300 acres of forestland and the remaining acres in open, idle prairie grassland was in deplorable shape—heavily damaged due to absentee landowners, overgrazing, and insufficient rotational cropping.  The soil was totally depleted of organic matter.  All these conditions have led to the drastic decline of habitat for Bobwhite quail and eventually their population.  But the land opportunity was too good to pass up; and as Katie said later, “The place looked just like where they were from in Alabama, plus the good Lord said it was okay!”  After contacting his parents back in Alabama, Jack placed their bid and they “won” the auction!  And even more ideal, John and Katie chose the best manager for their new operation—their own son, Jack.  The adventure of settling in Mississippi had begun!

The property was previously a dairy farm with some hay production and a little row cropping. Apparently, no improvements were done to the land since the 1940’s and 50’s.  To say the least, it was a horrendous sight.  Pine trees were planted but the soil was so poor that nothing survived.  Covered with tall fescue, invasive species, many stumps along with overgrown cedars and green ash trees; the overhaul of the property’s condition was a priority.  The family immediately began bush hogging, pulling up stumps, and burning piles of debris.  They sprayed the weeds and invasive species, and cleared areas for seeding plots of native grasses.  The undertaking of this massive project warranted some help!  It wasn’t long before Jack contacted the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) for badly needed technical and program assistance.

NRCS Soil Conservationist Josh Tilley and Supervisory District Conservationist Wallace Cade of the Columbus (Lowndes County) Field Office have formed a unique bond with the Robertsons.  Josh stated, “These folks go the extra mile to get conservation practices carried out as quickly as they become available to them.  Their constant enthusiasm and rapid response to our advice, technical assistance and financial incentive programs have been major contributions to their overall success.”  So far, over 100 acres of native prairie grasses have been restored on this property.

grasspeople

One of the things Jack mentioned was that he liked the USDA-NRCS Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) the most because the program helped them more in long term planning and management, and they were able to do much more than they really could afford to do.  “We do everything that Wally and Josh say would be good for us,” John Robertson added.  “If Josh isn’t happy with a practice, we don’t do it.  These NRCS employees are very informative and supportive.”

Conservation practices that enhance, restore or protect the native grasses that are vital to bobwhite quail and other upland game species were installed through CSP and USDA-NRCS Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) on the Robertson’s property, and include the following:

 

Conservation Stewardship Program

  • Conservation cover to provide food habitat for pollinators
  • Cover crop to minimize soil compaction
  • Enhanced field border to provide wildlife cover
  • Tree shrub planting to provide wildlife food
  • Sequential patch burning
  • Creating structural diversity with patch openings
  • GPS targeted spraying
  • Using drift reducing nozzles
  • Riparian buffer for aquatic wildlife habitat
  • Cover crop mixes

In addition, these USDA-NRCS Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) practices were installed:

  • Prescribed burning (on a two-year rotation)
  • Fire break
  • Forest stand improvement
  • Herbaceous weed control
  • Tree planting
  • Site preparation

“Rotational cropping is carried out on the property so that something is blooming all year round,” Jack stated, calling it a “mosaic of grasses” to benefit wildlife habitat.

As a side note, the Lodge itself was built in 2005 after John and Katie had lived in a camper on the land for several years.  During this time a lot of work went into controlled burning and removing debris.  The name “Burnt Oak” originates from a story that Katie told us, “After a hard day of work, we decided to burn an old house abandoned on the property.  While it burned, a very old and huge oak tree caught fire too that was adjacent to the house.  Jack said, ‘Look, Pops, we burnt the oak too!’  The expression caught on, so we called the new lodge Burnt Oak Lodge.”

employeespeopleJosh stated, “If you wanted to look at an operation that utilizes Mississippi’s natural resources and uses NRCS conservation practices to enhance these natural resources, this is the best place to do that!  The Robertsons have become certified tree farmers too.”  John stated, “NRCS helps us move toward and enhance what we’re trying to accomplish here.  We are very thankful for all they have done for us.”

Recently, they have begun conducting feral hog trapping training and have developed a surveillance system that they use and sell to several states and internationally including Australia.  “Tibbee Creek Bottom” which is on the southern Clay County line and north Oktibbeha County line have become infested with feral hogs.  Jack Robertson is trying to do something about that!

In Mississippi, only three counties (Monroe, Lowndes and Noxubee) have prairie grassland or “Black Land Prairie.”  Rotational burning of timber and grasslands; herbicide applications to manage the invasive cedars, green ash, and tall fescue; and planting of grass seeds native to prairie grasslands all serve to restore wildlife habitat and soil quality.  It is also important to manage any adjacent forestland areas such as the ones owned by John and Katie Robertson.

The Robertsons have hosted many international hunts for hunters as far away as Australia, as well as corporate and wildlife training events throughout the year.  So far, they have customers in 37 states and seven countries.  Several wildlife habitat training events for NRCS have been held there too.  The family was the recipient of the Lowndes County Soil and Water Conservationist of the Year Award in 2008.

John and Katie have two daughters, one son and three grandchildren.  Everyone who lives on the farm “works” on the farm!  They all feed the dogs, manage the bed and breakfast lodge for hunters; and whatever else needs to be done.  Katie told us that she felt this place was where they were meant to be.  “It doesn’t matter where you’re planted, just bloom for the Lord,” she stated.

The Robertsons still have 100 acres in Shelby County, Alabama, they call the “Treasure Forest.”  Apparently, the Mississippi property is now a “Treasure Prairie!”

Because of private landowners such as the John and Katie Robertson, Mississippi is making significant strides in restoring prairie habitat that will benefit quail and other wildlife.  NRCS is proud to have been a part of their success and in helping make their dream come true!