Sustainable Farming Protects Lowell Schmitz’s Land in Belle Plaine
Updated: Sep 30, 2020
Scott County is filled with beautiful rolling hills and swaying landscapes, creating a picturesque scene when you look out to the horizon. Lowell Schmitz, who has been farming since he was old enough to help his parents feed the animals on their farm., knows the view well. He recently offered a glimpse of his family’s history and how their farming practices have benefited both themselves and the land they care for.
Lowell and his wife Brenda homesteaded their farm in 1979 and added to it with land purchased from Lowell’s father who was also a farmer. Schmitz has worked with the Scott SWCD on conservation projects in Belle Plaine, Helena, and St. Lawrence Townships. From the beginning, the family has held a connection to the land they farm and have implemented various techniques to ensure the land stays protected and healthy. One such technique is the use of grassed waterways in conjunction with contour farming.
Grassed waterways are a common farming practice. They are grass swale constructions in crop fields, ranging anywhere from 15 to 30+ feet wide and 50 to over 1000’ long. They allow water to channelize and flow down slopes without causing excessive erosion and gullying. Grassed Waterways are typically seeded with cool season, perennial grasses which provide quick cover and dense roots that hold soil in place.
Along with the waterways, Schmitz has been contour farming for decades. “We have to take care of our fields,” Schmitz said. And that’s exactly what contour farming does. It involves farming parallel with the natural contours of a field, rather up and down which reduces soil erosion by slowing the flow of water downhill and increasing infiltration. For Lowell, grassed waterways and contour farming are practices that have been passed down from his father.
In a section of contour farming that Schmitz manages right off county road 59, four grassed waterways—stretching over about 0.5 acres of crop field—had been in place since his father’s time. He farmed it with their rotation of corn and soybeans. Over the years, the strips began to weather, as all projects do, and needed to be rebuilt. To accomplish that task, Schmitz sought out the help of Willie Peters, Resource Conservationist at the Scott SWCD.
The two got together and designed a revamp of the waterways, deepening the channel and widening them to allow for better filtration and function. Funds provided from the Scott Watershed Management Organization (SWMO)—a close partner to the Scott SWCD, and an organization for conservation in Scott County--provided the final necessary resources to get project construction started. Schmitz, who works construction himself, knows how precarious it is to get all the pieces lined up. “There’s a lot of moving parts,” he commented regarding the need to get contractors and supplies line up at same time weather would permit construction.
Mother nature indeed had input on the project. If you recall last year’s growing season, it was wet. Grassed waterways are seeded with perennial grasses, or grasses that come back year after year. And seedings are typically done in early summer to allow for proper root establishment. But with the frequency and severity of heavy rains that occurred throughout the growing season, the crew had an extremely limited window to get the job done. And that window did not come until the fall.
By a stroke of luck, cooperation, and dedication, the contract crew was able to seed with oats and annual rye in September of 2019 with plans to seed perennial rye the next year. The annual species—or, seeds that only bloom for one growing season—gave necessary cover to the land through winter, and allowed the crew to be flexible in completing the project in a timely manner. Once the project was completed, Schmitz had restored 700 linear feet of grassed waterways. That land will now continue filtering and protecting the runoff from his field.
When asked why he decided to restore the waterways instead of converting them to cropland, Schmitz’s answer was simple, “it’s our responsibility to take care of the land for the next generation. I do my part here to protect my farm now, and for the future.”
We offer technical assistance and information to anyone looking to implement conservation projects on their property. They also may offer financial assistance for residents as well. To get the process started, call our office at 952-492-5425 or find more information online at scottswcd.org.