‘Moo’ving to sustain clean water and build healthy soils: a farmer success story

It all started with a letter.

In 2011, the Chisago Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) sent a letter to all landowners along the federally-protected St. Croix River – would they be interested in working with the SWCD to decrease erosion and sediment inputs to the river? If so, the SWCD had access to funding to help offset costs for such projects.

With their 700-acre dairy farm perched atop an escarpment with rolling hills and numerous steep gullies, the Mallery family was continually fighting the battle to keep their soil (and the nutrients applied to the soil) on their fields and out of the river. With some trepidation of allowing ‘the government’ to come into their lives, brothers Joe and Bill Mallery decided partnering with the SWCD and the local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office was an option worth exploring, so they responded to the letter.

What then started was a partnership that has grown and expanded over the past decade and a generational transition for the family farm.

In all, the Mallerys have worked to install 14 erosion control projects with assistance from the SWCD and NRCS on both owned and rented land. They used variety of established conservation practices, including water and sediment control basins (known in conservation lingo as “WASCOBS”), grassed waterways, a clean water diversion, and a vegetated treatment area to slow water runoff and keep soil upland.

Aerial view of a ‘WASCOB’ – an earthen embankment constructed across a slope to serve as trap for both sediment and water. Photo Credit: Patrick McNeil

Each of the projects helped build trust between the Mallerys and local conservation staff. As the years passed, Jeff, Joe’s son, took over the family business and became interested in exploring other conservation practices beyond erosion control that could not only help improve the dairy farm operation, but also better protect the environment.

Such projects included fencing off a spring-fed pond from Jeff’s cattle and planting a 30 foot vegetative buffer around it. Jeff began experimenting with various cover crops and participated in the Chisago SWCD fall cover crop program by no-tilling rye after corn. He also has adopted no-till practices to help build soil health. He rotationally grazes his cattle across his pastures to allow forage to regrow and also grazes his cattle on field crops in the fall so his permanent pastures can rest.

Jeff out in one of his fields in fall 2021. “This is cover crops at work in a drought!”

The most involved project to date has been developing a comprehensive nutrient management plan for the farm. Jeff uses regular soil tests to track nutrient levels in the soil so he can be precise with fertilizer applications. He installed a stacking slab for manure management, as well as a water diversion that moves dirty water and sediment from various areas of the farm to a vegetated treatment area and stilling basin.

What’s been happening at the farm has not gone unnoticed. In 2020, the farm was certified in the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification program. The Chisago SWCD named Mallerys Jerseys as the county’s outstanding conservationists in 2020 and 2021. Then, this past December, the Minnesota Association of Soil and Water Conservation District awarded Mallerys Jerseys the title of 2021 State Conservationist of the Year.

But even beyond the formal recognition of his efforts, Jeff has also experienced gratitude from total strangers. “A couple years ago we had a profile in the local paper written about us,” he says, “One morning soon after I found a piece of paper lodged in our front door from somebody who passes our farm every day on his way to work. The note said he had read the article and wanted to thank us for doing what we can to be good stewards of the land.”

Craig Mell, district manager of the Chicago SWCD, is incredibly proud of the strong relationship his office has been able to build with the Mallerys farm. “This is exactly the type of relationship we love to build with producers, and it’s so gratifying to see the recognition Jeff and his family are getting for their work and dedication. It is possible to run a successful farming business and be dedicated to healthy soil and clean water. We’re excited to continue working with the Mallery family, and we hope this success story inspires other farmers in the county to reach out and start a project with us.”

Top image: Mallerys Jerseys farm. Drone photography collected by Patrick McNeil (www.mcneils.com).