Houghton farmer honored for 50 years of dedication to conservation

Conservation personnel often stopped to visit with Mahlon Spurr of Houghton as he served on the Brown Marshall Conservation District board. In this undated photo, Spurr is baling hay on some conservation land. Courtesy photo

By Connie Sieh Groop
Special to the Farm Forum

The eerie photos of blowing soil near Miller earlier this spring and the recent blowing dirt illustrate the stark reality of what can happen if conservation measures don’t continue.

In northern Brown County, farmers recognized planting trees could stop the sandy soil from blowing in the 1930s, especially in the Hecla-Houghton areas. Farmers banded together to ensure conservation measures reduced the loss of precious topsoil by wind erosion.

Brown-Marshall Conservation District honored the work of one of their board members this spring for 50 years of service. Mahlon Spurr of Houghton joined the Brown-Marshall Conservation board of supervisors in 1968. During the time he has been on the board from 1968 to 2018, the District worked with farmers to plant 2,012,995 trees.

Trees were an important focus when Spurr began farming. Some of the shelterbelts planted at that time still surround the Spurr farm.

“I always liked the Chinese elm trees,” Spurr said. “They grew fast and worked well in shelterbelts. We planted a lot of them and cottonwood trees. The red cedar trees provide good windbreaks.”

A big improvement in shelterbelt plantings came when the district was able to place fabric during the process. The weed barrier improved the success rate of the trees as it provided a weed-free zone around the base of the trees.

The practice offered some challenges, even for those who were directors of the program.

“I made a mistake with my trees as I didn’t realize the fabric needed to be cut as the trees grew. Some of the trees were girded because of that,” Spurr explained. “I learned to cut the fabric away after four or five years. That is the practice suggested to those putting in new shelterbelts.”

Initially, a lot of single-row tree belts were planted. That’s unheard of now and many producers are taking shelterbelts out as the trees have lived their lifespan. Stately stands of cottonweed trees succumbed to high water conditions. Changes in agronomic practices with bigger equipment makes big fields more appealing.

Sharing examples of conservation

Now a consultant, Doug Farrand was the district conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service for 28 years. In his position, he worked with the Brown-Marshall board to encourage and promote conservation practices. During those years, he got to know Spurr well.

Farrand came to Brown County in 1987 from Murdo. Since the landscape features different soils and practices, Farrand turned to Spurr to understand how to provide the best service to the farmers.

“From my memory, the 1985 Farm Bill included a lot of conservation requirements. That was the beginning of Conservation Reserve Program Wetlands Reserve Program, wetland compliance and highly erodible land conservation compliance. Producers had to develop a conservation plan to be eligible for farm program benefits.”

To learn how farmers in the area met the requirements in this area, Farrand visited with supervisors of the conservation district.

“I remember Mahlon invited me to his farm to show what their family did,” Farrand said. “Mahlon’s dad, Cyrus, was instrumental in the organization of the Brown-Marshall District. During the visit, I saw how they worked with the sandy soils of Hecla-Houghton area which were potentially very erodible. I used the Spurrs’ methods to make templates for other people to use to stay in compliance. It was a good fit in that area to accomplish that goal.”

Farrand said the farm speaks for itself, “The Spurrs are great conservationists.”

He explained, “To reduce the impact of wind on the soils, the family planted shelterbelts. In the fields, they’d leave the fall crop standing after harvest, so the residue would catch snow. In that area, a technique called “strip cropping” was big. The farmers would only open 10 rods of a field at a time. They would plant it and then move on to the next 10 rods. (A rod is 5 ½ yards or is about 1/320 of a mile.) The technique was preferred to tilling the whole field at a time.”

In those years, using what was called a pony press was pretty popular. This conservation method combined a plow, drill and packer in one pass across the fields for small grains. This would expose the soil in narrow strips. Farrand said, “It’s been years since I’ve seen one operate.”

One story Spurr enjoyed sharing with others explained how farmers knew it was time to start planting in the spring. Farrand remembers Spurr telling the story that he repeated from a neighbor: “When you can pull your pants down and sit on the ground for 15 minutes without being uncomfortable, then you can start planting corn.”

Programs change

Judy Skoglund has served as the district manager for 32 years and praised Spurr for his help. She recognizes that it takes time and effort to serve on the board, and she appreciates the support provided by Spurr and others.

The district’s office on Main Street in Hecla was built in 2008 and provides office space and coolers for the trees. Other board members include Dana Dennert of Columbia, Terri Traxinger of Claremont, Rory Mikkonen of Frederick and Lynn Ruenz of Hecla.

The conservation program encouraged planting trees with cost-share programs through Conservation Reserve Program. The average cost of an acre of trees with fabric is $2,500 an acre.

Trees improve the environment

The biggest year for the district was in 2004 when two crews put 248 acres of trees in the ground. High water levels in the 1990s destroyed a lot of trees, especially In the Hecla-Houghton area. As a result, Gov. Bill Janklow developed a state program with major costshare incentives. As crops and yields have changed, fields have gotten bigger and shelterbelts disappear. It’s been a big transformation across of the countryside.

Now, “We are lucky if we get 30 acres planted each year,” Skoglund said.

With a shake of his head, Spurr said, “We have a heck of a time to get anyone to plant trees today.”

Dana Dennert has been chairman for 10 years. When asked what the board does, he answered, “We plant trees. And we have a new grass drill to seed grasses and alfalfa. The board leads by example with farming practices that promote conservation.”

Back in the 1930s and 1940s, it was the job of the supervisors to review and sign conservation plans for area farmers. This was done to educate others to develop plans and follow through. There was no cost-share available. Technical assistance helped farmers set up practices such as strip cropping and terracing when possible. The District board provided practical input and urged others to consider conservation practices. Eventually, the duties changed from the supervisors to the NRCS staff for reviews.

Skoglund said the board used to be more involved in programs which were part of the Sodbuster legislation. If complaints about blowing soil were logged against farmers, the board would investigate. The board signed CRP contracts, not so much as a policing measure but to oversee the farming methods. Now any of that would be considered a violation of privacy, Skoglund said.

Conditions dictate practices

Spurr’s sons Trent and Terry have taken over most of the day-to-day operation of the Spurr farm.

As times have changed, the Spurrs find that minimum tillage in the spring works best in the sandy soil. They may disk the corn stalks slightly, but it is considered conservation or minimum tillage.

As soybeans gained in popularity, the Spurrs drilled their bean seeds into narrow rows, as they felt this protected the soil better. Others planted beans in 30-inch rows and used spring tillage to incorporate fertilizer which could leave fields black and subject the soil to blowing before the crop was big enough to hold the soil.

Spurr helps out and noted, “It’s been so wet in the past few years in our area that we have to work up some of the land with a disk. We aren’t no-till but try to keep our tillage to a minimum.”

Importance of roots

Jaime Rindels is the district conservationist for the ‎Natural Resources Conservation Service and works closely with the board.

“Having someone like Mahlon on the board is very important for the historical perspective. Everything is cyclical, and some of the same problems surface. You can never have too much experience.”

She noted that the diversification is important as the Spurrs incorporate grain farming, alfalfa and cattle in their operation. “That diversification is a big push with soil health. We want to reintroduce livestock to the mix, and the Spurrs are an example to show how well it works.”

Rindels said planting trees isn’t as popular as it used to be. Improved tillage practices have replaced some of the need for trees. Retaining root systems in the soil with cover crops through the winter holds the soil in place.

As ag programs, change, there are few incentives to plant trees.

“We are not offering any CRP contracts now which has cut down on the number of acres planted. Maintenance of a tree belt is important the first few years. Operators need to be careful to prevent spray drift for the first few years after planting.”

Dedicated efforts by conservation-driven people like Spurr provide for the future of all involved in agriculture.

Connie Sieh Groop is a freelance ag writer. She can be reached at [email protected]

Brown-Marshall Conservation District

The mission of the Brown-Marshall Conservation District is to promote Conservation Stewardship in Brown County through education, conservation services, and technical assistance.

Established in 1937, the Brown-Marshall Conservation District is the First Conservation District in South Dakota. The Brown-Marshall District consists of approximately 556,000 acres in the northern part of Brown County. The district was originally 115,000 acres comprised of the northeast part of Brown County and the west part of Marshall County. In 1947 the Marshall County acres were transferred to Marshall County Conservation District, and the Brown-Marshall District expanded to cover the entire north half of Brown County.

Most of the District acres are actively farmed. Some of the first trees planted in South Dakota were planted in the Brown-Marshall District prior to 1900.