Farming in the Flyways

Farm Bill conservation programs help producers provide vital habitat for waterfowl and improve their bottom line



By Devin Blankenship, Andi Cooper, Becky Jones Mahlum, and Kellis Moss

Throughout Ducks Unlimited's history, partnerships with farmers and ranchers have been at the forefront of the organization's efforts to conserve wetlands and other important habitats for North America's waterfowl. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has also been a longtime supporter of wetlands and waterfowl conservation, going all the way back to 1934, when the USDA issued the first federal duck stamp. Today, the USDA provides nearly $1 billion in funding for on-the-ground conservation each year through the Farm Bill. As DU CEO Dale Hall has stated many times, "If the farm gates close to us, Ducks Unlimited will not be able to accomplish our conservation mission."

DU works directly with producers and the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to deliver Farm Bill conservation programs on working agricultural lands. The NRCS's mission is "helping people help the land," and through a suite of conservation options, the agency does exactly that. In many cases, DU plays a key role in bringing together producers and the NRCS to implement conservation practices on farm and ranch lands. It's through these close working relationships that real progress is being made on the landscape for waterfowl, other wildlife, and people. Let's take a closer look at some of the outstanding conservation work that's being accomplished by farmers and ranchers through these partnerships across the nation.

Ethan and Link Bieber
Acadia Parish, Louisiana

Cousins Ethan and Link Bieber took charge of their family farm in Louisiana's Acadia Parish in 2013, becoming the fourth generation of their family to grow rice and raise crawfish here. Although these farmers have a strong tie to the land and the farming way of life, neither of them followed a straight path back to their roots.

Link joined the Louisiana Army National Guard after the September 11 attacks, and served two deployments in Iraq. He then spent nearly three years providing law enforcement in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and that is where he met his wife, Courtney, who also serves in the Army National Guard. After attending South Louisiana Community College, Ethan got a chance to take over the farm. Link joined him later that year.

The Biebers heard about the USA Rice−Ducks Unlimited Rice Stewardship Partnership and the NRCS Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) at a rice "field day" in Crowley, Louisiana. DU Rice Stewardship Coordinator Kyle Soileau and Rice Conservation Specialist Keith Latiolais were there to talk to rice producers about engaging in the program.

"We asked a few questions, but what really impressed us was the way Kyle and Keith came out to our farm to figure out how they could help us," Ethan said. "The programs match the way we operate and line up with what we want for the farm, so it was a natural fit."

The Biebers, who are enrolled in the national Sustaining the Future of Rice RCPP project, focus much of their efforts on improving nutrient management, using irrigation water more efficiently, and optimizing habitat for wetland wildlife on their farm. Both of them are avid waterfowl hunters, and they enjoy seeing more ducks and geese on their land.

"We close our water-control structures on November 1, and keep them closed until February 15," Link explained. "That extends the time that we have flooded habitat, and we have seen more waterfowl for longer periods of time than when we just flooded the land during duck season. All sorts of birds are here now, and some even nest on our farm."

DU Rice Stewardship staff meet with enrolled landowners like the Biebers to determine the best management options for wetland habitat, to test water wells and suggest the most efficient ways to run them, and to help farmers process soil samples to improve nutrient-management practices. "Keith is terrific to work with," Link said. "Every time we have a question, he comes out and walks the farm with us to find the best solutions. If we have a question about paperwork or records, he helps us complete the forms."

Participating farmers receive financial incentives through NRCS programs to implement water-, nutrient-, and habitat-management practices. Working closely with local NRCS offices, DU provides the boots on the ground and expertise that farmers need to implement these beneficial practices. "The NRCS staff is great to work with too," Link said. "It's clearly the close partnership between growers, DU, and the NRCS that makes this program work so well."

In addition to the financial incentives, which help farmers make the capital investments needed to more sustainably and efficiently grow crops and take care of the land over the long term, many conservation practices provide immediate cost savings for producers. "Irrigation management and pump testing help us run our water wells more efficiently. We also keep a log of rainfall and pumping as part of the program, so we pay more attention to changes in water levels in the field and what we need to do to adjust them. All of that helps us save money and time," Ethan explained.

Taking soil samples as part of the nutrient-management requirement improves the efficiency of fertilizer applications on the Bieber farm. This not only reduces input costs but also improves water quality in the surrounding watershed.

"We save quite a bit of money that way," Ethan said. "It may be one of the most beneficial things in the program for us."

Together, Ethan and Link hope to keep their 1,550-acre farm in the family. "These programs improve our bottom line and our farm's health," Ethan said. "We hope that when the next generation is ready to take over the operation, we will be able to pass it on to them like it was passed down to us—better than ever."

Larry and Michelle Smith
Phillips County, Montana

During the summer of 2017, the Prairie Pothole Region experienced one of the worst droughts in decades. Especially hard hit was north-central Montana's Hi-Line region, where precipitation levels reached all-time lows. Ranchers searched for forage for their cattle, crops were in dire need of water, and only minimal wetland habitat remained for breeding waterfowl. As agricultural production plummeted and fires raged, the local economy suffered.

But there was one silver lining during this difficult time. Over the past decade, Ducks Unlimited and its partners have worked with farmers and ranchers to make their operations more resilient in the face of weather and economic extremes. Working with the NRCS, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, DU has helped producers enroll in a variety of Farm Bill conservation programs that make their operations more profitable during hard times.

For four generations, Larry and Michelle Smith's family has endured the highs and lows of agricultural production on the Hi-Line. "You have to think outside the box if you are going to survive in the farming and ranching business in a place like Phillips County, Montana," Larry said.

DU Manager of Conservation Programs Bob Sanders and biologist Abby Dresser worked with the Smiths to find conservation options that would be the most advantageous for their ranching operation. A number of NRCS programs were discussed, including the Wetland Reserve Easement (WRE) component of the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, which turned out to be a great opportunity for the Smiths.

"The 30-year WRE was the right fit for our family and our operation," Larry said. "And it helped restore our poorest, most drought-prone farm ground back to grassland."

With 75 percent cost sharing provided by the NRCS, previously converted wetlands will be restored, allowing the Smiths to conserve more water, provide healthier forage for their cattle, and improve habitat for breeding waterfowl and other wildlife. A management plan developed cooperatively by the Smiths and local NRCS staff will allow reserved grazing rights throughout the life of the agreement.

"Ranchers need grass and water, and so do ducks and other wildlife," Larry said. "These programs help keep our ranch viable and allow us to pass the operation on to our kids and grandkids."

Thanks to the Smith family, and to DU and its agency partners, word has spread to other landowners along the Hi-Line. In the past 12 months, more than 8,000 acres have been approved for WRE enrollment in Phillips County alone. Friends and neighbors are seeing the value of partnering with DU and the NRCS to use similarly flexible conservation programs on their farms and ranches.

"CRP gave us an opportunity to enroll a farm that has a history of lower yields as a result of consistently wet soils. We believe that this decision was best for this land for both economic and environmental reasons," Peterson said.

Ernst, who is a member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, will play a key role in shaping conservation provisions in the 2018 Farm Bill. DU supports an increase in the national CRP acreage cap as well as expanded working lands options in this upcoming legislation. DU also supports maintaining conservation compliance and robust funding levels for the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, Regional Conservation Partnership Program, Environmental Quality Incentives Program, and Conservation Stewardship Program.

Ernst also toured the property of fourth-generation farmer Colton Meyer. Meyer and his father have seen firsthand how Farm Bill conservation programs benefit pheasants, white-tailed deer, and waterfowl on their family farm. "The opportunity to hunt and fish played a big role in my return to the farm after college," Meyer said. "Voluntary conservation programs like CRP allow us to take some of our least profitable acres out of production while protecting important wildlife habitat. This combination of agricultural production and conservation allows my dad and me to continue to enjoy hunting pheasants, ducks, and deer on our land."

Mike Shannon
Sutter County, California

In 2005, when Ducks Unlimited approached Mike Shannon of Shannon Farms with an easement offer for a portion of his property bordering Northern California's Sutter National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), the timing couldn't have been better. Rice farming in the state was in the midst of a temporary down cycle, creating stress for Mike and his fellow farmers.

The offer from DU was straightforward: a permanent conservation easement would be placed on 723 acres of Shannon Farms. Partial funding for the easement was provided by the NRCS through its Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program, which is now part of the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program. In return, Shannon Farms agreed to continue to farm the land for rice as in the past, flooding the fields in winter when possible to provide foraging habitat for waterfowl, shorebirds, and other waterbirds that also use the nearby refuge.

Rice fields provide nearly 60 percent of all food resources available to ducks and geese in the Central Valley of California, which is the most important waterfowl wintering area in the Pacific Flyway. "I'd been pretty involved with Ducks Unlimited over the years through our local chapter and got to know some people in the organization," Mike said. "Ducks Unlimited wanted to protect the area around the refuge, knowing the importance of this area to ducks and geese. They came out, did all the setup work, and were fabulous. It gave us some money for the ducks and didn't really change our operation at all. The land is also protected from future development."

The Shannon family has deep ties to the Sacramento Valley and to waterfowl hunting. Mike's grandfather, Grover, purchased the property in 1934, and later created one of the first duck clubs in the area, the High Low Club. Four generations of Shannons have worked for the family business, including Mike's father, Samuel, and son, Trey. The ability to continue to provide for their families while supporting local wildlife was a key reason Mike decided to partner with DU on the easement.

"We are farmers, and farming takes precedence, but we do as much as we can to propagate wildlife, whether it's waterfowl, cottontails, or quail," Mike said. "Most farmers are very conservation-minded. The Ducks Unlimited easement was a great idea, and there are a few other properties around us that have joined as well. We need to protect the Sutter Refuge, and this is a great way to do it."

Located 50 miles north of Sacramento, Sutter NWR was established in 1945 with funds from the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act. The refuge consists of nearly 2,600 acres of wetlands, grasslands, and riparian habitats. It is surrounded by several thousand acres of rice fields that waterfowl depend on for food and wintering habitat. Opportunities such as the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program provide conservation-minded farmers like Mike and his family an opportunity to grow their business and protect essential wetlands and other waterfowl habitat at the same time. It's a true win-win for people and wildlife.

Devin Blankenship and Andi Cooper are communications specialists in DU's Western and Southern Regions, respectively. Becky Jones Mahlum is manager of conservation programs—communications and outreach in DU's Great Plains Region. Kellis Moss is director of public policy at DU's Governmental Affairs Office in Washington, D.C.

Senator Joni Ernst Tours Iowa Farms with DU Staff
In an effort to highlight the importance of Farm Bill conservation programs to local agricultural producers, several Iowa landowners opened their family farms to Senator Joni Ernst and staff from Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever. Cory Peterson gave the senator a tour of the Peterson family farm and discussed how Farm Bill conservation programs benefit her operation. Peterson hopes Congress will keep voluntary, incentive-based conservation programs, like the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), strong in the next Farm Bill.