By Bob Scanlan 

Root River SWCD

The Root River Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) is proud to announce this year’s Conservationist of the Year, Joan Heim-Welch. Joan lives in rural Brownsville with her husband Todd and has two grown children. Her son, Brian, works as a software engineer in Chicago and her daughter, Tracy, is attending the University of Texas at Austin for her master’s degree in international relations.  Joan manages 590 acres of owned land in Brownsville and Crooked Creek township. She raises beef cattle, grain, hay, and timber. This year she planted a cover crop of tillage radish, field peas, and oats on her prevent plant acreage which she intends to let her cows graze on.

Joan credits her late husband, Arnold, for her conservation and farming knowledge. Before she met Arnold, she considered herself a “city girl”.  Joan and Arnold did not own any land when they began farming together but, by working hard, they were able to buy their first farm in the early 1980s during the farm crisis when interest rates were higher and commodity exports fell due in part to the grain embargo against the Soviet Union.  In order to buy land and support their new farm, they worked a number of odd jobs including roofing houses and barns and sorting cattle at the sale barn in addition to raising pigs and Holstein steers.  Joan even drove a school bus, which she continued to do for over thirty years.

 Because most areas of the farm are on top of a ridge, Joan and Arnold implemented many types of conservation practices over the years, beginning with a grade stabilization structure completed in 1984. A common practice for the Heim’s was to do timber stand improvement, a practice that targets removal of trees in bad condition or of undesirable quality while improving the woodland for desirable trees.  In addition, Heim’s would also plant trees after logging an area of woods. 

After moving to the farm that Joan still lives on today, they removed the original pasture fences and relocated them to the contour of the ridge.  They then fenced off a majority of the woodland and ravines so that cattle would not exacerbate erosion, giving the forest a chance to thrive. After Arnold’s passing in 1998, Joan continues to be a conservation steward to the land.  Current conservation practices include contour strip cropping, maintaining buffer strips and grassed waterways, utilizing grade stabilization structures along with brush management within the pastures and woodland areas, timber stand improvement, diversions, and acres devoted to the conservation reserve program (CRP) such as tallgrass prairies, conservation security program (CSP), including acres devoted to pollinator plots and private forest management projects with the DNR. She voluntarily does nitrate monitoring and certified her farm with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s “Water Quality Certification Program”.

Cattle and Crops

The challenging ridge landscape makes the land vulnerable to sediment and nutrient losses.  To counteract erosion, Joan is committed to implementing an abundance of conservation practices.  An integral part of the farming operation has always been a beef cow-calf herd that grazes on some of the more challenging slopes on the farm.  Joan utilizes a rotational grazing system to ensure that pastures are not over-grazed, thereby providing sufficient perennial ground cover.  This practice improves soil health by allowing more infiltration of water and reducing the occurrence of nutrient runoff.  Most years, the calves are weaned in the fall and sold after at least a 45-day backgrounding program. 

Joan grows corn, soybeans, and small grains in her crop rotation.  As a means to reduce overall chemical use on the farm, Joan works closely with her agronomist to address the most prevalent weed concerns on the cropland.  In addition, Joan spends many hours scouting fields and hand-pulling areas of weed escapes on the crop ground.  Troublesome weeds, such as water hemp, are pulled by hand and burned in order to reduce the potential spread.  Joan includes mixed hay in the rotation as an important tool in reducing the impact of water hemp, ragweed, and other weeds.  By limiting pesticide use strictly to herbicides and addressing insect concerns through crop rotation and GMO hybrids, no insecticides have been used on the farm for many years.

Joan pays close attention to nutrient management by consistently performing soil and manure nutrient tests.  Test results are integrated into the cropping system to ensure that adequate nutrients are added to the soil for crop use but are not over applied, which keeps the potential for nutrient loss from crop fields to a minimum. 

Conservation Leadership 

Joan attributes her success to the guidance and support from the Root River Soil and Water Conservation District.  The SWCD assists in all aspects of project management including initial planning and improvement.  She notes that Houston County is unique in that it has a program for funding push-up ponds, which is a simple structure that alleviates erosion concerns.

Joan’s ability to address the resource concerns on her farm allows her to share effective practices with others.  With knowledge and experience from the diverse types of conservation practices implemented throughout the years, Joan is a contributing member of the Houston County Water Plan.  As a Water Plan Committee member, Joan is instrumental in providing input and directing actions to foster responsible water resource planning for Houston County.  From her experience in implementing different structures, waterways, and other best management practices to the most recent practices of pollinator plots, cover crops, and brush management, it is clear that Joan is an avid conservationist and a vital resource to the community.

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