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Sharing Conservation Ideas Promotes Healthy Lands

By Quenna Terry, Public Affairs Specialist

Some of the first signs of spring can be heard from farmers discussing their plans for the new growing season.  

At a recent conservation outreach workshop in the Texas High Plains region, farmers from Randall and Potter counties gathered to hear presentations from local farmers and agency partners about how helping nature with conservation, windbreaks and pollinators can be beneficial for the land.

USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board, local soil and water conservations districts (SWCDs), Texas A&M Forest Service and Texas A&M AgriLife, Creek House Honey Farm and Hunden Wildlife Services, LLC hosted the outreach event at the Texas AgriLife Extension Center in Canyon where approximately 55 producers attended.

Producer Derek Lepke from Claude presented an informative presentation titled “Helping Nurture Nature: A Can-Do Proactive Approach.”  Lepke described his experiences in planting different varieties of trees for windbreaks and shelterbelts. 

He started planting 8,000 trees on 160 acres in 2012 and found out what varieties grow well in this region.  Lepke said his kids nicknamed him Johnny Appleseed of the Panhandle with his ambitious goal and the number of trees he planted.  He doesn’t recommend anyone start out planting as many trees as he did at one time, however, he does advocate for landowners to take a proactive approach to plant trees on their land.  Lepke installed 80,000 feet of drip line for his trees and he said drip irrigation is the most efficient way he has found to water his trees.

From hardwoods to woody plants or browse species and evergreens, Lepke’s property looks visually appealing while holding value of a food and shelter source for wildlife and birds.  He credits NRCS for helping him develop a working model of his tree planting project through planning and technical assistance.

Johnathan Motsinger with the Texas Forest Service and Lepke both agree the most important recommendations for successful tree plantings are site preparation, using fabric and roller, ripper and tree planter. 

“It’s been wonderful to have help from the NRCS and the Texas Forest Service,” Lepke said.

Jeff Lewter, district conservationist with NRCS followed up on Lepke’s comments with his presentation telling how NRCS can aid landowners with their conservation needs.   Lewter’s overview described how the agency can offer help to small landowners through free technical assistance, soils information, engineering, plant identification and wildlife information. 

Most of the participants were unaware of the help they could receive.  Lewter explained some of the conservation goals producers can setup working with NRCS such as maintaining high-quality productive soils, promoting healthy plant and animal communities, improving air quality, helping maintain the viability of working farms and ranches and helping to produce energy, to name a few.

“NRCS is a great place for any small or large landowner to start when considering conservation goals on their land.  There are different options we can discuss because every situation is different and we want to help where we can,” Lewter said.

Two additional presentations were given by Erin Jones-Gray, horticulturist with Texas A&M AgriLife and professor at West Texas A&M University about common insects, and Sally Brantley and Paige Nester, landowners in Canyon, described their farming business and “The World of Pollinators: Beekeeping and Honey”. 

Gray instructed how pests can be harmful and helpful like the Tomato Hornworms, and she used examples of beneficial insects such as the different types of lady bugs, praying mantis, beetles and parasitic wasps to show their value to crops. 

Since pest’s present problems to many who grow vegetable and other crops, she explained different types of control that can used to suppress them including integrated pest management, biological control, mechanical pest control, and genetic control. Gray recommended bugguide.net as a good resource to help in managing pests.

Brantley and the Nesters are neighbors who want to do what they can to increase pollinators.  The Nesters started Creek House Honey Farm where they primarily focus on beekeeping.  They produce honey and beeswax products on their farm, and they grow 500 lavender plants in their field for the bees to pollinate. The Nesters have sought out other high protein crops like sunflowers for their bees.  They have a good working relationship with many of the row crop farmers in the region that allow their bees to be in their fields.  She said pesticides kill bees where the herbicides and fungicides have a disabling effect on them.  The farmers they work with make plans with the Nesters so if they must spray it is only when the bees are put up and not active.

Brantley said she started bee keeping in 2011. That is when she first inquired to NRCS about technical assistance and farm bill programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).   In 2017, NRCS assisted Brantley and Creek House Farms with a wildflower planting on 23 acres for pollinators through the EQIP program.  This year, the Nester’s were approved for another EQIP contract to plant an additional 20 acres for pollinators.  They plan to plant the pollinator varieties this spring.

Brantley was enthusiastic in telling the group, “Being a farmer in the presence of bees is worth it.”

Brantley explained her grapevines are self-pollinating and they need the wind and gravity to grow in this climate.  Additionally, she uses neem oil for an insecticide and fungicide. The soil on her land is shallow where she has many weeds and invasive plants that requires her to continually shred.  The neem oil is somewhat effective, and it doesn’t hurt the bees.

NRCS has also assisted the Nesters with herbaceous weed control and general technical assistance for plant identification, information on Farm Service Agency (FSA) programs and more about NRCS assistance.  The Nester’s obtained a beginning farmer and rancher loan through the FSA and they have inquired about disaster program assistance availability.

The success of the Tri-County Landowner meeting was a partnership effort. Deanna Porter, district clerk for the Randall County SWCD, Debbie Boxberger, district clerk for Potter County SWCD, Tracy Fischbacher, resource team leader for NRCS in Amarillo, Jonathan Motsinger, program leader with the Texas A&M Forest Service, Jeff Lewter, district conservationist for NRCS in Canyon and Alex Pehl, district conservationist for NRCS in Claude planned and organized the event.

“Outreach programs like this help NRCS and our partners reach farmers and ranchers who may not know of the local resources available to them,” Fishbacher said.  “This partnership approach provides a one-stop shop for producers.”

For more information about USDA programs and technical assistance, contact your local USDA Service Center in your county.  Farmers and ranchers looking to purchase windbreak tree seedlings should contact their local SWCD.

Sharing Conservation Ideas Promotes Healthy Lands, Submitted by Quenna Terry, USDA-NRCS public affairs specialist (2019, May)