Conservationist Farmers

Two Minnesota farmers demonstrate how they revamped their farming methods to work with the land rather than against it.

| May/June 2018

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    For the past 20 years, Del Stubbs has developed his orchard while supporting the pollinator population.
    Photo courtesy Del Stubbs
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    Art Thicke manages his 90-plus-head herd of dairy cattle by rotating them among paddocks on his farm.
    Photo courtesy Art and Jean Thicke
  • conservationist farmer
    Jean and Art Thicke have been managing their dairy with rotational grazing for years.
    Photo courtesy Art & Jean Thicke
  • cattle
    With proper rotation management and forgoing the annual soil tilling, Thicke’s herd is able to have year-round access to 200 acres of pasture with supplemental grain at milking times.
    Photo courtesy Art & Jean Thicke

  • conservationist farmers
  • conservationist farmer
  • conservationist farmer
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Oftentimes, the best conservation practices and methods in agricultural settings are not the results of government regulations, mandates, or oversight. Instead, they are often initiated by those with their hands in the dirt. Because of this close relationship with nature, small-scale farmers often have the foresight to see the need for protecting soil, waterways, and wildlife.

One such farmer is Del Stubbs of Leonard, Minnesota, who is a woodturner and custom toolmaker by trade. He is also a knowledgeable small-scale farmer engaged in restoring and protecting pollinator habitat, according to Sarah Foltz Jordan, senior pollinator conservation and habitat restoration specialist at The Xerces Society.

Spending one December morning with Stubbs, knee-deep in snow in his apple orchard, was as enlightening an experience as any class I have ever taken on beekeeping. He rattled off scientific names of local wild bees, bumble bees, and butterflies. He could tell you where each is found, and the plants they prefer. He pointed out the two quarter-acre parcels hidden under the snow that were specifically developed and replanted for wild pollinator habitat, with more on the way, and a section of the orchard where milkweed was allowed to flourish instead of being tilled under.

Not only is Stubbs involved in restoring pollinator habitat, but he has also renovated seven small ponds in low-lying areas on his 160 acres into original habitat for waterfowl. And as an entomologist, he is very knowledgeable about fruit production. He has tested some 80 varieties of apples alone in the harsh climate of north central Minnesota. Stubbs told me a humorous story about going to see the regional cooperative extension advisor 20-plus years ago. He introduced himself as being from the fruit-growing regions of northern California. He wanted advice on growing apples in northern Minnesota. Before he could finish, the advisor rolled his eyes, cut him off, and said, "Forget it. It won't work. They'll all die."

Undeterred, Stubbs set about finding out what would work and what would not work. He tested varieties and rootstocks, and grafted his own combinations. Today he has become one of the most knowledgeable experts on apple varieties and rootstocks in north-central Minnesota. He has shared his knowledge by teaching fruit growing and grafting classes.

The passion for fruit growing and restoring native-pollinator habitat go together. Today, many of our native pollinators are endangered, due largely to loss of habitat and pesticide usage, among other reasons. It is people like Del Stubbs who are trying to prevent it.



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