Doctoring the Land with "Farm Kid" Wisdom

David Van Dyke showing the prairie strips he's developed on his cropland.
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Barb Kruse

VERNON COUNTY, WI – A new land conservation agreement between Dave and Betty Van Dyke and Mississippi Valley Conservancy has conserved 114 acres of beautiful ridgetop farmland and forest habitat into the future.

Forty-three years ago, Dave and Betty Van Dyke passed through Wisconsin’s Driftless Area on a trip to visit relatives, soon after Dave had finished his residency in psychiatry in Oshkosh. Both were so struck by the uniqueness and beauty of the area that they soon decided to make it their home. “Having land and a place to raise kids in the country was what we wanted,” said Dave, “I just have a piece of rural in me.”

Now, after decades of thoughtful and active care for the agricultural and wild resources of the land, they have made their commitment to the land permanent by protecting it with a conservation easement with their local land trust, Mississippi Valley Conservancy.

David and Betty maintain ownership of the land, but the Conservancy accepts responsibility for ensuring the land is not subdivided or developed in the future. Conserving family farms is an important component of the Conservancy mission. In reflecting on this new protection of their land, Dave commented, “We came to this area over 40 years ago and have created our lives here. Making responsible, ecologically sound choices to improve and preserve the farm has always been an integral part of that process.”

Initially, Dave said, they had great difficulty plowing the first year because the soil was almost  pure clay with no organic matter. Having grown up on a farm, he knew that improving the health of the soils would be mandatory to any successful operation. 20 years ago, Dave planted trees to hold the soil in place in some of the highly erodible fields that he enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program. He knew about tree planning from his days in 4-H. In other fields, Dave followed the advice of a wise farmer-neighbor by adding lime to the soil and starting crop rotations planted along the contour. Dave and Betty’s most recent endeavor has been to establish a practice called Prairie STRIPS (Science-based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairies Strips). These strategically placed strips of native prairie plantings within crop fields are a conservation practice that delivers enormous soil, water, and nutrient benefits while increasing wildlife and pollinator habitat.

Even with the increase in heavy rains in the Driftless Area, the soils on their farmland have remained stable. According to Ben Wojahn, Vernon County Conservationist, “Keeping land productive and still protected is the most impactful thing farmers and landowners can do. Land enhancements such as permanent prairie strips will ensure that our farmland and soil can remain viable, our water can remain clean, and our rural way of life can continue in perpetuity.

According to Abbie Church, Conservation Director for the Conservancy, “Every conservation easement Mississippi Valley Conservancy accepts is unique to the specific property and the wishes of the landowner for the future of the land. Dave and Betty live there, and we worked closely with them to honor their wishes for the future of the property.” The Van Dyke’s agreement includes an area designated for buildings and an area designated for agricultural production. The easement is recorded at the register of deeds, and the restrictions pertain to all future owners of the property.

Prairie strips contour crops on the Van Dyke farmland
Prairie strips contour crops on the Van Dyke farmland

Conservation Easements

David and Betty Van Dyke maintain ownership of the land, but the Conservancy accepts responsibility for ensuring the land is not subdivided or developed in the future. Conserving family farms is an important component of the Conservancy mission.

The Van Dyke’s land management has also extended from the farmland into the surrounding woods. The oak woodlands on their property are enrolled in the state Managed Forest Law program and are managed to support area wildlife. Their efforts paid off 6 years ago when their fourteen-year-old granddaughter got her first deer, an 11-point buck with a seventeen inch spread. She has been hunting there ever since. According to Dave, in the early 1980’s, wild turkeys (whose population had been decimated by disease) were reintroduced from Missouri to Wisconsin. As the turkey population increased, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources trapped turkeys in the Van Dyke’s back field to release into other areas of the state. “There was some concern about our peacocks,” Dave said with a laugh. “They kept leaving the coop to join the turkey flock, to the consternation of the DNR folks.” The turkey population began to flourish in Vernon County, and continues to do so today.

"David and Betty’s vision and work have all come together to enhance the value of their farm for the future while increasing its climate resilience for all who live here,” said Carol Abrahamzon, the Conservancy’s executive director. “Their contribution to improving soils, supporting wildlife, and protecting native habitats will last forever!"