From Cropland to Prairie: A Journey of Patience and Management

Prior to European settlement, the Lower St. Croix watershed was predominantly covered by a mixture of prairie and savanna, which supported a diverse range of grasses, wildflowers, and wildlife. However, with the arrival of settlers in the mid-1800s, much of the native prairie was plowed and converted into agricultural land. As a result, the landscape of the region is now a mix of cropland, forest, and pastureland, with a growing suburban and urban footprint. There are still some remnants of native prairies, largely limited in size and distribution, and many of them are the result of a growing trend of landowners converting agricultural lands back into prairie.

Mary Jo Youngbauer and her family moved to their property near Rush City back in 2012, and while the majority of the 17 acres were still being used for a corn and soybean rotation, Mary Jo knew she was interested in eventually converting the land into a more perennial landscape. The opportunity to start the conversion came in 2015 when a cold wet spring led to the farmer who rented their land being unable to plant crops in a timely manner. The farmer planted a clover cover crop to minimize weeds for that season and prevent soil erosion

Mary Jo’s prairie in the spring after mowing.

At the same time, Mary Jo was talking to one of her co-workers at the Chisago Soil and Water Conservation District who recommended she apply for the Conservation Reserve Program, commonly referred to as ‘CRP.’ The CRP is a voluntary program through the Farm Service Agency (FSA) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that can provide landowners with annual rental payments and cost-share assistance for establishing conservation practices, such as planting native grasses, trees, and shrubs.

Mary Jo applied to convert her cropland to prairie. Looking back at that time, she noted the entire process wasn’t incredibly straightforward, even for somebody whose daily job is in conservation. “It can feel like a firehose, trying to get all the right materials and maps together while learning terminology and what practices are applicable,“  she says. “It really takes time and work, which I can understand can be a real barrier for landowners who are interested in finding out whether or not they are even eligible to apply.”

Still, the application went through, the funding came, and the conversion started. Mary Jo bought a brush cutter to attach to her ATV and started mowing the property to help control weeds. The family bought native seeds from Minnesota Native Landscapes and started sowing. Managing invasive plants such as Canada thistle and buckthorn was a constant battle of targeted spraying and physical labor. In those first few years, Mary Jo repeated a mantra that is something you will hear from any landowner who has planted a new native plant space: “Be patient. It’s not going to be pretty the first couple seasons. Manage. Maintain. Wait.”

Now seven years later, Mary Jo’s restored prairie is a joy for her and her family. She loves to see new native plants emerging every year, she loves the colors throughout the seasons, and she loves the amount of wildlife and pollinators that use the prairie for food and shelter.  She acknowledges that there is still a fair share of work and maintenance she has to do every year, but the result is worth it.

“It’s amazing to see the land and wildlife recover together and thrive,” she says.

Mary Jo has agreed to host a series of walks through her prairie this year. “An Evening in the Prairie” will take place from 5-7 pm on May 9th, July 11th, and September 26th.  Hosting the walk in different seasons allows participants to not only see how the prairie colors and wildlife change, but also what management strategies and maintenance need to happen on a seasonal cycle. She’s excited to share her journey, and her position as a conservation planner who has been through the CRP process means she will be able to speak knowledgeably about the tools and resources landowners have access to if they are interested in prairie restoration.

Those interested can sign up for one, two, or all three tour opportunities. Learn more and register here: