Whether it’s making use of unproductive land or trying to boost wildlife habitats, a drive to restore wetlands has been hitting agriculture.
Jason Bleich, a private lands biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said he has seen a lot of momentum in recent years as farmers and conservation programs have connected and found good use for land that might have seemed previously unusable.
“I think people are really starting to realize the low areas where you are losing crop four out of every five years, you might be better putting that into conservation programs and not farming it,” Bleich said. “You are putting inputs in there and losing it to flooding or down a tile drain. If you don’t farm those areas and just farm the best acres on your farm, you’ll get a better return on investment.”
Bleich, who is based in east central Illinois, said he has been working with other conservation groups, such as Pheasants Forever, and landowners to create more sustainable land and habitats. He said projects range from installing a water control structure on existing tile to elaborate projects that require excavation and installing pipe structure.
He credited the move to significantly more awareness of conservation and water quality, particularly from absentee landowners who rent their land out to farmers.
“There’s more landowners that maybe don’t live on the farm or they live in the city, and especially with that crowd, we are seeing a lot more awareness,” he said. “They are really wanting to do cover crops and conservation acres. I think farmers and absentee landowners are seeing the benefits of these projects from a conservation and a pocketbook standpoint.”
Having a wetland can encourage more wildlife activity, particularly over the fall and spring months as migratory birds change locations. One way to boost that activity and crop production is by utilizing water control structures for when the crop is harvested in the fall.
“Once the crop is out, through the fall and early spring we try to hold water there for the migrating birds, but it also doubles at keeping the water table high in the drought months in the summer,” said Bleich.
He said projects like these can have a simple one- to two-month turnaround depending on what permits and consultations with other agencies are required, but on average might take close to six months to a year. Some of the more complex wetland restorations or installments could take even longer.
“We are working with a recreational landowner who wants to flood his whole property for duck hunting and that might take a year to two years,” Bleich said.
There are some cost-share programs that can help, but some landowners are doing these projects simply because they see those benefits as invaluable. Farmers work outside nearly every day and have motivation to keep their acres sustainable, he said.
“We work with a lot of farmers who are hunters or outdoor enthusiasts,” Bleich said. “They want to see more wildlife on their property.”