Volunteers plant wildflowers on CRP farmland near St. Peter

Farm Forum

ST. PETER — On a recent cool morning, dozens of volunteers moved slowly across a recently planted grassland field, stopping every five feet, pulling a small wildflower plug from a plastic carrier and then kneeling down to dig a small hole and press the plant in place.

“I hope they grow well. Seeing the flowers next year will be grand,” said Mary Mogensen, who with her husband David own the farmland west of St. Peter where the prairie planting was taking place.

Nearby, daughter Heidi was planting more flowers, while son Martin was working with his dad in the nearby shop as they got equipment ready to restart a rain-delayed harvest.

Heidi lives in Colorado but returns to the family farm in the spring and fall to help with farm work. “I drive the grain carts,” she said.

She said her parents were always conservation minded. “Now that another generation is involved in the farming, it’s something that will carry on.”

John DeMarais, a senior from Gustavus, heard about the volunteer opportunity at college and wanted to help.

“You’ve got to take care of what’s around us.”

The event was sponsored by Great River Greening, a St. Paul-based group that has an employee, Karen Galles, who works out of the Nicollet County Soil & Water Conservation District office in St. Peter. She coordinates work for The Seven Mile Creek Watershed Partnership, a group of landowners, agencies and volunteers working to improve water quality in the watershed.

Mogensen farms 2,100 hundred acres and recently enrolled about 100 acres into the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to put land into the conservation program for a 10-year period, with the option to renew it. Mogensen has another 50 acres that were previously enrolled in CRP.

The 100 acres — comprised of different parcels of odd-shaped corners of fields — was seeded with a blend of grasses last fall. The volunteers focused on planting groupings of wildflowers, 3,000 in all, on a 16-acre parcel. When the tiny plants mature in future years they will drop seeds, expanding the number of flowers.

The plant mix included milkweed, stiff tickseed, spiderwort, wild strawberry, butterfly weed and wild onions. While the grass/flower plantings will protect soil and filter nutrients to improve water quality, the addition of more wildflowers also benefits bees and other pollinators, Galles said.

“The landowner is really progressive, he’s done a lot of no-till and cover crops. He’s really worked at both making money and makings sure the down river affects of his operation aren’t harmful,” Galles said.

The size of the planting area is larger than most of the CRP parcels in the area that have been planted into grasses and wildflowers. “It’s a pretty big area. In Seven Mile Creek Watershed most (farmers) have done a mixture of grass and wildflowers but this is kind of above and beyond that,” she said.

A few volunteers came from the Twin Cities but most were from the Mankato and St. Peter area, including volunteers from Nicollet County Pheasants Forever and area colleges.

Galles said the volunteer workers help the landowner and the volunteers, many of whom aren’t familiar with farming, get to talk to and see what farmers do. “We have a cross-cultural component to what we do. It gives the volunteers an idea of what it takes to run a farm.”

The Seven Mile Creek Partnership started in 2012 and the partners, including individuals, environmental groups, SWCD, MPCA, DNR and others, have raised nearly $2 million in funding to do projects and monitor and assess their impact on water quality in Seven Milk Creek, which empties into the Minnesota River near Highway 169. The creek is a designated trout stream but has been impacted by nutrients and sediment. Beyond planting buffers and grass and wildflower areas to filter water from surrounding farm fields, projects have been done to shore up some steep, erodible bluffs in the park.

Galles said that longtime residents in the area say that after rains the creek is running much clearer now than in the past.

And she said they soon hope to have the scientific data to back up the visual improvements. Water quality data was last gathered about 10 years ago. Now the MPCA, Gustavus Adolphus College and others have been collecting samples and analyzing them to compare to a decade ago.

“They’re trying to get good data and turn it around fairly quick. It looks better, but farmers want to know if all the things being done are making a difference and they want to see the numbers,” she said.

“They really want to be a model and show others in the state and across the Midwest what works.”

Great River Greening began in 1995 as a 5-year volunteer planting project on the Saint Paul riverfront, where 10,000 volunteers and 450 organizations helped plant 35,000 trees and shrubs.

The group continues to partner with agencies, landowners and communities to conserve natural areas, lakes, and rivers.