December 11, 2023

CALUMET COUNTY, Wis. – When it comes to farming one often hears words like “deep roots,” “hard work,” “independence” and “perseverance.” Words are one thing and actions quite another. Jerry Franzen of Calumet County is all about action.

Generations of the Franzen family have been farming for more than 125 years on rich glacial soils near Lake Winnebago. The 122-acre farm was established in 1898 by Franzen’s great-grandfather Peter Joseph Franzen.

“The acreage had been cropped so long there wasn’t much weed seed left in the seed bank,” Jerry Franzen said.

Decades of intensive land use take their toll. Such was the case for Franzen. In 2013 he contacted Joe Smedberg, a district conservationist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in Calumet County. Runoff draining from the nearby Niagara escarpment was causing soil erosion.

Smedberg helped Franzen write a plan to construct a grassed waterway to help prevent runoff. But they were back to the drawing board after a torrential rainstorm washed away the seed and tons of soil. With the ingenuity characteristic of any good district conservationist, Smedberg proposed another solution – a half-mile-long rock-reinforced waterway. The massive project took four years to complete, but solved the drainage issue by transporting water away from the site; it prevents erosion.

Dealing with a similar drainage issue near his house, Franzen again worked with Smedberg. Water can be diverted and channeled elsewhere, but it also can be absorbed into the soil. Smedberg suggested a planting of deep-rooted prairie plants to act like a sponge. That helped slow and drain runoff near Franzen’s home.

Fast forward to 2022. Franzen decided to retire from farming so he called Smedberg again; the two men discussed options. Because he had been renting his land to other farmers, Franzen needed to compare his income gained from leasing land to other available options.

One option involved the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program. In exchange for taking his land out of agricultural production, Franzen would receive annual Conservation Reserve Program payments. The rates were similar to the rental income he had been receiving.

Satisfied with the success of his first prairie planting, he chose to put his remaining 92 acres into the Conservation Reserve Program. And he wasn’t about to contract the work he said he himself could do.

“Putting the land into (the Conservation Reserve Program) made sense,” Franzen said.

He embarked on the prairie planting soon after his June meeting with Smedberg. Using his own drill – and his trademark ingenuity – he began the new venture with a learn-as-you-go approach and a strong helping of do-it-yourself spirit. He did a light disking to remove excess residue from corn that had been planted there. That helped to ensure good seed-to-soil contact.

When the soil was ready he used a cement mixer to mix winter wheat and oats along with native grass and flower seeds. While it may seem odd to mix agricultural seed in a prairie planting, the winter wheat and oats added weight to the fluffy native grass and flower seeds. That helped ensure the seeds found their way into the drill and were spread evenly over the field.

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“Companion crops like oats and winter wheat help with weed competition,” Franzen said.

He worked about five days in the course of a month to plant the prairie seed. He would have finished sooner but rain made it difficult to work the fields, he said.

While proceeding with the independent spirit of a farmer, he also enlisted Smedberg’s help. Franzen knew how to plant a conventional-crop field. Smedberg helped him with the subtleties of prairie planting.

“Prairies help soak up excess water,” Smedberg said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program provided additional seed for a 10-acre parcel near the road to add species diversity to the prairie.

As summer transitioned to fall, the planting developed another ally – Franzen’s wife, Glenny Whitcomb. She became increasingly excited about the project as the prairie matured. She even coaxed him into adding an extra 5 pounds of flower seed to the mix.

“Glenny is more excited about the project than me,” Franzen said.

Franzen realized land-rental payments and annual Conservation Reserve Program rental rates were essentially a wash, but family and neighbors weren’t convinced. He said they raised common objections – “Why take the land out of farming when it had been in production for more than a century?” “Why plant weeds?” “Even if the planting succeeds, the payoff is way down the road and it won’t start looking good for several more years.”

Franzen had a different perspective. After more than a century of intensive use the farm needed a rest. And Conservation Reserve Program contracts are 10 to 15 years in length, which results in a more-predictable income stream and less time negotiating yearly rental agreements, he said.

It was the drive to leave the land in better shape than what he inherited that motivated him, he said. And a host of grassland birds, whitetail deer and pollinators of all sorts already have flocked to his prairie.

“I enjoy the property more now that it’s not being cropped,” he said.

With its mission of promoting wildlife habitat, the Pheasants Forever Outagamie Chapter helped install signs on the property. It also has offered to consult on future prairie burns.

Franzen said he looks forward to his children, who live in the area, being successors to the farm and enjoying the property in its natural state.

And maybe he’ll also soon hear the crowing of a rooster pheasant. Visit pheasantsforever.org and nrcs.usda.gov for more information.

John Motoviloff is an outreach coordinator for Pheasants Forever Wisconsin. Contact [email protected] for more information.

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