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July 14, 2021

Pollinator Habitats gain popularity in county

There’s a growing trend for pollinator habitats in rural DeKalb County. Landowners are turning some of their corn acres into pollinator habitat as part of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).

Nearly 9% or about 454 acres of the CRP acres are enrolled in the Pollinator Habitat Initiative.
So why are some local landowners converting their cornfields into prairies with pollinator plants?

Pollinator plants attract a variety of bees

“We have lost so much of the prairie and the diversity of plant material in our county,” explains Anita Zurbrugg. “I like to support pollinators which we depend upon. Most crops and foods we eat rely on pollinators to develop their seeds, nuts and/or fruit.”

Anita’s first inspiration for prairie and pollinator plants came from her late husband, Mike. “He was intrigued by prairies and their habitat,” said Anita. They transformed a cornfield into a native prairie over 30 years ago and built a pond on their land located southwest of DeKalb.

Anita Zurbrugg maintains pollinator habitat and prairies on her farm and around her rural DeKalb homestead. She says she now is able to identify a variety of bees.

After the loss of her husband, Anita would frequent the pond and prairie as therapy and over time planted trees and gardens. Once she decided to build a net-zero energy efficient house on her rural landscape, she resolved to put a little more than six acres in CRP for pollinators. Her small acreage in front of her house was well-suited for that.

Five years ago she enrolled in the CRP and contracted with the local Soil & Water Conservation District to seed her pollinator acres. Before seeding, she mowed and tilled the ground in order to manage the weeds. “Soil preparation is critical with pollinators,” said Anita, “And using high quality native seed with more forbs (flowers)/less grasses is also important.” She used 75 varieties of native wildflowers and grasses.

Anita has learned so much about managing pollinator habitat, even though she inherited her green thumb from her parents and grandparents. And don’t ignore the fact that she has quite the plant pedigree – earned a college degree in horticulture, was the county’s Extension horticulture adviser, farmed for many years with the Faivre family, and is currently a Master Naturalist.

Lessons she has learned are:

1. During the first year, mow the pollinator plants every three to four weeks until frost (you won’t kill them), 2. Using quality seed mixes pays off; don’t be temped to buy cheap mixes, 3. Start small so you don’t get discouraged and are less inclined to continue.

“The biggest misconception of planting a prairie is that it will take care of itself. Not unlike other crops, it has its own requirements,” she said. “It takes 8-10 years to establish a prairie.”

She manages her 10-acre property, along with her farmland on Nelson Road. In her pollinator acres, Anita has re-seeded bare spots, dug up invasive weeds and put plugs in where needed as part of its maintenance. “The key is to stay on top of it. Keep ahead of the weeds. Burn parts of it every year,” she stated.

When she was working full time (for Brown Law firm, then American Farmland Trust, and lastly the DeKalb County Community Foundation) and raising her family, she didn’t have as much time to commit to her prairie. Now that she’s retired she spends about 15 hours a week maintaining the prairies.

“The more I learn about native, natural habitats and ecosystems, the more motivated I am to continue,” Anita said. “I’m learning to distinguish bees and I have a bigger variety of bees and butterflies each year.”

Her biggest challenge – “to appreciate what’s there (instead of what needs to be done).” But she does, especially with her three adult children and five granddaughters.

Assorted wildlife returns to rural landscape

The Kaalaas family appreciates the natural beauty of their 98-acre pollinator habitat on their farmland enrolled in CRP. The colorful flowers and tall prairie grass offer aesthetic appeal.

But they also enjoy the wildlife – like deer, pheasants and rabbits – that are returning to their rural landscape located southwest of Kirkland on Irene Road.

Farmer Don Kaalaas was an avid hunter and trapshooter up until he turned 84. So he particularly likes the thought of wildlife trapesing through the prairie grass and flowers as does his son, Randy, from his backyard that backs up to the pollinator habitat.

“Dad loves seeing wildlife, so the pollinator habitat has been something that he has enjoyed the last couple of years,” said Randy. “He likes taking a drive to see the wildlife and also how the plants change with the seasons.”

Don enrolled about one-third of his farmland acres into the CRP in 2017. The rest remains in corn and
soybeans.

The Kaalaas’ welcome the return of wildlife to their pollinator habitat. Randy Kaalaas and Kelley Kaalaas Rippentrop say their father, Don, enrolled one-third of his farmland acres into CRP.

“The CRP program was enticing to Dad because it complemented other conservation practices he had in place,” said Kelley Kaalaas Rippentrop, Don’s daughter. “He has established a 4-acre pond, a 5-acre windbreak and waterways so a pollinator habitat was a good addition.”

“As he grew older and was renting out this farm ground it made sense to have some of it in CRP acres,” said Kelley.
The Kaalaas’ contracted with the Soil and Water Conservation District to seed their pollinator habitat with an air-seeder four years ago.

Kelley described the pollinator habitat as naturally divided by waterways, in three sections. Each year they burn one section or one-third of the CRP ground as part of the required maintenance. The most recent burn occurred in April.

“It’s an excellent way to utilize farmland, but not put all of it into pollinator habitats,” said Kelley. “It’s a chance to pick the land that is not as productive as other land for CRP acres.”

Randy agreed, suggesting that the CRP acres consist of more rolling ground of their parent’s farmland acres.

Randy, Kelley and brother Kurt grew up farming with their parents Don and Audrey on their farmstead on Quarry Road.
Now, Randy is a retired mail carrier and Kurt is a soon-to-be retired UPS pilot. Kelley is a real estate and consumer loan officer at First National Bank in Amboy.

Kelley who lives a mile west of the CRP acres, drives her 4-wheeler along the waterways and fence lines checking out the pollinators. “I have noticed more pollinators, like bees and butterflies, and birds every year.”
“We all enjoy the benefits of the pollinator habitat – the wildlife and the pollinators,” said Randy.

CRP: Pollinator Habitat Initiative

The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) provides farmers and landowners with initiatives to achieve many farming and conservation goals. One of those is the Pollinator Habitat Initiative (CP-42) which enhances honey bee and native pollinator populations.

In DeKalb County there are over 5,100 acres enrolled in CRP. Nearly 9% of the CRP acres or about 454 acres are enrolled in the Pollinator Habitat Initiative.

CP-42 offers landowners a way to create long-lasting meadows of native wildflowers that support pollinators and other wildlife populations. By increasing pollinator habitat farmers are contributing to crop pollination on farms where their habitat needs are met.

Farmers receive annual payments (comparable to cash rent) for CRP acres per a 10-year contract and a cost-share payment covers up to 50 percent of costs of establishing the practice.
Acres selected for the CP-42 must be at least .5 acres and an approved conservation plan that addresses CRP resource concerns.

The CRP program is administered by the Farm Service Agency of the USDA. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) provides technical support and locally the DeKalb County Soil & Water Conservation District is available to install/seed pollinator acres.

For more information about the CRP Pollinator Habitat Initiative contact the local USDA Farm Service Agency.


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