Farmer Protects Timber Coulee Creek and More Surrounding Forest and Farmland

More of Sharratt's land protected on Timber Coulee Creek
Sarah Bratnober

VERNON COUNTY, WI - April 17, 2018 - In their second conservation agreement with Mississippi Valley Conservancy, Tom and Sharon Sharratt have chosen to conserve an additional 82 acres of land in Timber Coulee, near Westby, Wisconsin. Their voluntary conservation agreement protects the natural resources on their land by limiting future subdivision, development, mining and other activities that would disrupt the farming, native habitat, and wildlife that flourish there.

As in many families, farming sometimes skips a generation, and Tom is one of those who sought to return to the farming tradition of his grandparents. After earning an agricultural science degree at UW-Madison, he only needed a farm to put his education to practice.  Seeking affordable land, Tom bought a ridge farm overlooking Timber Coulee Creek before going to Germany in 1972 for five years to serve in the U.S. Army.  Tom had worked on a relative’s farm near Dane Wi for several summers and knew both the hard work and potential income involved in raising tobacco.  When he saw tobacco being raised near Westby, he foresaw a source of income to help pay for the farm while he was gone.  He was lucky enough to meet a local farmer, Eugene Volden, who managed his farm until he could return to live on it – which came 24 years later.

Upon retiring from the Army in 1985 and after teaching high school in Des Moines for eleven years, Tom and his wife, Sharon, moved onto their farmland.  Tom became a student of forestry, as he sought to protect and improve their forested land. He got good advice from the local DNR foresters and groups like the Wisconsin Woodland Owners Association, where he first heard about Mississippi Valley Conservancy. Tom and Sharon’s original property across the road from the Snowflake Ski Jump, is now a certified tree farm known as “Timber Coulee Tree Farm.” They have protected 148 acres of that land with a conservation agreement that was established with the Conservancy in 2016.

In 1992, Tom and Sharon purchased a second property just down the road. The second property, along with an additional parcel acquired in 2014, is now protected by their second conservation agreement with the Conservancy, for a total of 82 acres newly protected. The newly protected property is also part of “Timber Coulee Tree Farm.” The new agreement protects land on both sides of Timber Coulee Creek for 3,500 feet. Timber Coulee Creek is a Class I trout stream with WDNR public fishery easements. It flows into Coon Creek in the nearby Coon Creek Fishery Area. “Protecting streambanks and the natural springs along Timber Coulee Creek and other feeders to Coon Creek Fishery is essential to maintaining the cold water temperatures that help Wisconsin’s trout populations to thrive. As a result, that state uses Timber Coulee as a brown trout brood stock source for it's Wild Trout Program. Fish from this effort are stocked all across the state,” says David Vetrano, Conservancy Board member and retired WDNR fisheries biologist.

The riparian grasses and wildflowers along the creek are emblematic of the long tradition of watershed conservation pioneered in the nation’s first large-scale demonstration of soil and water conservation undertaken by the U.S. Soil Conservation Service back in 1933. The property also includes steep forested hillsides and valley farm land where Tom and a partner raise organic crops and pastureland is leased to others to graze heifers during summer months. Towering above the Sharratt’s valley home is “Preacher’s Pulpit,” a bluff with a massive outcropping of limestone where legend tells of a young preacher who practiced his sermons from the overlook.

The Sharratt’s woodland has been enrolled into Wisconsin’s Managed Forest Law program. They have planted walnut, oak, pine and chestnut trees on the new land in recent years. They’ve also done work to stabilize the stream banks where water comes off the hills. Their current plans include the addition of two acres of pollinator habitat to be planted this year. “The property, like most land in the Driftless Area of southwest Wisconsin, provides excellent habitat for deer and turkeys as well as other wildlife,” added Sharon.        

“We love our property and nature and we have long been concerned about the loss of prime farmland and the subdivision of farms for smaller building plots,” said Tom, “Mississippi Valley Conservancy has offered us the chance to ensure that our land will remain as it is now – wild and beautiful and healthy.” 

“I’m excited that we are protecting more of Tom and Sharon’s property,” said Carol Abrahamzon, MVC’s Executive Director. “Our conservation easement ensures that the land cannot be subdivided for residential development regardless of who owns it in the future and that it can continue as working farmland and forestland for the benefit of future generations.”

A new generation is already learning from Tom and Sharon's reforestation efforts. The Sharratts host field trips for Westby High School agriculture classes where students learn to identify tree species and experience forest management firsthand. "They have a lot of fun when they're here, too," says Tom. In addition to local students, the land is also valued by Tom and Sharon's children and grandchildren. "While our children and grandchildren don't live close to us, they enjoy visiting our farm, fishing, hunting, and exploring," said Tom, "They understand and support our goals in working with the Conservancy. They know that when it comes time to divest in the propery, having this easement in place will make it easier for them to find buyers who share our vision for the land."