A hand-painted sign sprouts in front of a stand of tall prairie grass along Highway 71 in Renville County, south central Minnesota. It reads, “CRP, not corn.” Steve Madsen painted the sign to let passersby know that the field is more than just a bunch of weeds amid thousands of acres of corn, soybeans and sugarbeets.
It’s a mixture of native prairie grasses and flowers, planted between cropland and the edge of the bluff that plunges down into the Minnesota River valley. Enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, its purpose is to provide a buffer between cultivated cropland and the river, capturing and filtering storm water runoff, preventing it from delivering sediment and nutrients from cropland that degrade water quality in lakes, streams and rivers.
A lifelong Renville County farmer, Madsen raises corn and soybeans on 1,000 acres of his 1,100-acre farm. The balance, about 100 acres, has been strategically planted in tree windbreaks and shelterbelts, and prairie grasses.
Serving on the Renville County Soil and Water Conservation Board for about 12 years, Madsen participated in various programs providing financial incentives, such as the Reinvest in Minnesota and Conservation Reserve programs. In the early 1990s he was named Renville County’s “Conservation Farmer of the Year.”
“We’ve just got a beautiful stand here of the grasses and forbes,” Madsen says, looking out over a 50-acre plot restored to prairie grasses, adjacent to an oak-shrouded ravine that snakes toward the Minnesota River. In addition to providing a water quality buffer, the stands are sprinkled with pheasant and deer prints in the snow.
Some of the inspiration to participate in the conservation programs came from an example over the fence line. In the mid-1990s, the Department of Natural Resources acquired 320 acres to the west of the Madsen farm. Restored wetlands and prairie soon bustled with deer, pheasants, and other wildlife. “I saw how it worked out, how it stopped erosion,” Madsen says. “And I really liked the wildlife.”
He pointed to a windbreak of red cedar and lilac planted in recent years along the highway. “We keep a lot of snow off Highway 71.” In the shelter of the trees he had installed a small corn crib to feed pheasants. “It’s a nice conservation project to stop the water erosion, and some wind erosion, too. And it’s a benefit to the wildlife.” On the DNR land, Madsen planted nine acres of corn, leaving about five acres standing for the deer.
Madsen grew up on the farm just to the north. He and his wife, Vicky, bought their present farm in the early 1970s, and raised three boys. Now with families of their own, they are in the process of taking over and continuing to farm the land, most of it. Those 100 acres will remain in trees and grasses, and they become the focus after harvest, when hunting season begins.