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'Locally led conservation' efforts benefit Grove City farmer

In early May, Jonathan Slinden was watching the weather and neighboring Meeker County farmers starting to plant their crops.

While he was preparing to plant his roughly 1,000 acres on mostly rolling hills, Slinden also was already appreciating the sight of crops growing in parts of his fields.

“The covers are taking off with the heat this week,” Slinden said May 5 about his 80 acres of cereal rye cover crops.

Planted outside of Grove City, the cover crops had done well with preventing erosion during a wet spring and showed more growth than most of his other four years of using them.

“When I was planting (May 24), I was a little fearful about how tall it was because it can get tough to kill,” Slinden said three days later about his cover crops.

Slinden has long had interest in cover crops, reduced tillage and other conservation practices. Financial and logistical challenges, however, delayed the transition until he reached out to conservation staff co-located in Litchfield, with Meeker Soil & Water Conservation District and USDA-Natural Resource Conservation Service.

Through a “locally led conservation” approach with the SWCD and NRCS, Slinden started cover cropping and using less tillage.

Cost-share programs through Meeker SWCD and NRCS have helped Slinden start using soil-health practices and finding the most feasible and effective ways of doing them, said Joe Norman, district technician for Meeker SWCD.

Slinden is good at identifying issues on his fields and actively seeking resolutions, Norman added.

“A lot of producers can recognize issues but have trouble taking action to resolve them or maybe don’t know where to start,” Norman said.

Slinden also keeps strong relationships with his landlords and encourages them to install erosion-control practices and enroll less-productive areas into the federal Conservation Reserve Program, Norman said. Overall, Slinden has helped get about 50 acres converted into native prairie through CRP.

Slinden said he tries to figure out better ways of handling unproductive spots in fields, which can involve taking them out of production and put into a conservation easement. It helps the environment and farm operation.

“My overall yield gets better on paper because I’ve eliminated the bottom half,” he said.

Norman said he thinks Slinden eventually would have started experimenting with cover crops and reduced tillage without financial assistance but the cost-share and technical help from NRCS and SWCD allowed him to incorporate these practices with less financial risk. It also ensured the practices were installed appropriately.

“He has an interest in making each of his farms as productive as possible without sacrificing the conservation aspect that needs to be a part of production agriculture,” Norman said.

Aside from cover crop cost-share programs, Slinden also has used the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) through NRCS to secure $6,000 to help buy a strip-till bar.

“EQIP is an excellent tool to assist producers with the cost of installing practices to meet their goals,” said Jacob Stich, the NRCS district conservationist who worked with Slinden at the Meeker County field office.

Overall, Slinden said he hopes to eventually convert all his family’s crop acres to strip tillage or minimum tillage as well as diversify his crop rotation. With cover crops, Sliden has focused on finding the most-affordable and efficient ways to use the practice in his family’s operation.

Most of the land operated by the Slindens features rolling topography with coarse soils on the hilltops and rich, black soil in the dips. Slinden aims to raise the same number of bushels of crop with less equipment, fuel, fertilizer and other ag inputs.

“Strip tillage allows me to reduce the number of tillage passes and apply less fertilizer,” Slinden said.

He also uses nutrient and pest management; has planted monarch-pollinator habitat; and has moved away from using deep tillage.

‘Very conservation-minded’

Slindens have had farms in the Grove City-Atwater area of Meeker County since the 1870s. Just west of Grove City — where U.S.12 runs aside railroad tracks and grain elevators — Slinden keeps his farming headquarters on his parents’ homestead overlooking Lund Lake.

More than a decade ago when he graduated from college, Slinden started a different but related career path, working for three years as an agri-business grain merchant that moved him three times. Slinden knew he wanted to get back to Minnesota and, with strong corn prices in 2012, that became a reality when he rejoined the family farm.

Slinden’s now in his 10th year of farming in Meeker County, where his transition into soil-health practices is not the norm. About 6% of Meeker farmers reported using cover crops in USDA’s 2017 Census of Agriculture, with about 26% saying they use no till or reduced till.

Matt Anderson, a Meeker SWCD conservation technician, met Slinden a few years ago when he helped certify Slinden for the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program. That voluntary program by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture recognizes farmers using and maintaining approved farm-management practices that benefit water quality.

“He’s very conservation-minded and he’s always open for trying new things.” Anderson said. “He’s very conscious about reducing erosion when it presents a problem.”

Meeker SWCD honored Slinden and his family as its 2021 Outstanding Conservationists of the Year. Slinden and other conservationist from across the state were honored in December at the annual convention of the Minnesota Association of Soil & Water Conservation Districts.

Slinden, who is in his sixth season with cover crops, used cost-share from Meeker SWCD for his initial three years of cover cropping at the maximum 40 acres per year. In the second and third year, he added 40 acres of cover crops through federal cost-share under Conservation Stewardship Program and did additional acres on his own.

After the SWCD cost-share ended, Slinden continued using CSP cost-share for 40 acres each year and, in 2021, was able to do his most cover cropping — 200 acres overall — thanks to a $5,000 grant from his MAWQCP certification that he put into 120 acres of cover crops.

For this year, Slinden has reduced his cover cropping to 80 acres due to increased costs and limited availability of herbicide. CSP cost-share will be used on 40 acres for the final time but Slinden plans to continue using cover crops on his own in 2023 for 80 to 100 acres.

Working to increase soil health

Some local farmers have shown interest in Slinden’s strip tilling and cover cropping. Others have asked if they could give his phone number to farmers who might want to learn more but they haven’t called yet.

It might show that there’s still too much fear out there in making the change, Slinden said, but he’s “always interested in talking about it.”

It’s a tough transition for many farmers, Slinden said, because a lot have that tillage mindset with their fields.

“They’ve always ripped it in the fall and then they’ll dig it in the spring,” he said.

Yet, Slinden, who serves as a board member for Central Counties Co-op and the Meeker County Corn Growers, said he thinks cover crops are starting to catch on with farmers, and the cost-share available helps significantly with the transition.

“What I always tell people is there’s a lot of free money if you want to try it out — so why not?” Slinden said.

Financial concern, Anderson said, often is the main reason interested farmers don’t transition into soil-health practices.

Slinden started gaining interest in soil-health practices about six years ago after attending an area field day featuring the SoilWarrior and strip tilling 22-inch rows.

He farms with a cousin who grasped reduced tillage before him and bought strip-till equipment.

Slinden now owns a strip-till bar for doing his own fields thanks in part to $6,000 in EQIP cost-share he used to buy the equipment that he will use for a fourth season this year.

Last year, Slinden strip tilled about 700 acres — about 70 percent of his family’s crop acres — focusing on soybean stubble going into corn and applying anhydrous ammonia at the same time last fall for nitrogen. It’s a little time consuming with only 12 rows at a time, he said, but he believes in the practice.

‘Short-term expense, long-term gain’

Driving his side-by-side in late May onto his 40-acre parcel with cover crops, Slinden stopped where the field takes a sharp, downward slope. Slinden pointed out a nearby fenceline where about 3 feet of soil has eroded over decades.

At the bottom of the hill, wet spots have been regular challenges sometimes causing equipment to get stuck. Cover crops, though, seem to have lessened their burden.

“I think it has helped with some of the wet spots that, in the past, I haven’t been able to plant or get through,” Slinden said. “Now I can at least get through them.”

Cover crops seem to be improving the soil, Slinden said. He has found those covered fields to have developed more little soil pebbles or aggregates and is “not so fine and slimy.”

“You can definitely tell there’s more tilth (soil structure) to it,” he said.

Standing in his field, Slinden wondered if it will be as productive this year as the neighboring conventional crop field but quickly noted that, unlike some farmers, he’s not looking for immediate results. He’s looking at the next 20 years for building organic matter and overall soil health while reducing soil erosion on his fields.

“It’s a short-term expense,” he said, “but a long-term gain.”

Auction brings $162,000 bid for Litchfield Schools' construction trade house

A booming housing market and reputation for a quality product earned the best price ever for Litchfield High School’s construction trade house.

The house, constructed by students during the 2021-22 school year, drew a winning bid of $162,000 during an online auction in July. That’s $57,000 more than the next-highest sale ($105,000 in 2020) and should result in the largest profit ever.

Business Manager Jesse Johnson said he’s still waiting for some bills for supplies and service, so a final profit number was not yet available. However, if total expenses are similar to past years, the district could see a profit of $50,000 or more — which would be nearly double the previous best ($27,457 in 2020).

Proceeds from the sale of the house go back into the construction trade program, Johnson said.

This year’s sale was a big boost to the program, especially given that no house was built during the 2020-21 school year, due to COVID-19 pandemic and distance learning challenges.

School Board member Greg Mathews heaped praise on Litchfield’s program and instructor John Spanos.

“I know a lot of programs don’t even break even,” Mathews said.

Litchfield construction house program has drawn interest from outside the area, Mathews said, with mayors of both Minneapolis and St. Paul visiting the program in recent years. St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter even “grabbed a hammer and hammered a couple nails” and “thought this was something special.”

Johnson said the program requires “dedication and relationships” to be successful, and he credited Spanos with both, saying his ability to work with outside contractors, such as electricians and plumbers, to perform some of the work that can’t be done by high school students, makes all the difference.

The class “builds a quality product (that) is very good,” Johnson said. “That’s why we’re getting really good bids.”

Since its inception, the program has seen only one deficit year, in 2012, when expenses exceeded sale price by $3,264.

Flurry of activity brings recreation center effort into clearer focus
  • Updated

The drive for a community wellness and recreation center in Litchfield recently moved forward on a few different fronts.

During its meeting July 25, Litchfield School Board unanimously approved placing a question on the November ballot that will ask district voters to approve a $13.545 million bond to finance construction of the district’s portion of the proposed $27.2 million project.

The next day, Litchfield Area Community Foundation announced its board of directors approved a resolution designating its Waterpark project funds — $528,327 — to construction of the center, which would include a swimming pool among its features.

Those two actions followed a vote by Litchfield City Council a week earlier to place a local option sales tax on the November ballot, with the prosed tax’s proceeds going to fund a wellness and recreation center.

Additionally, Litchfield Public Schools Superintendent Beckie Simenson announced in a news release collaboration between the city and school district on a public information campaign called “Live Well Litchfield Area” that will include a project website with information about the proposal and plan to pay for it.

“I am excited to be putting this important decision in front of voters,” Simenson said. “We are looking forward to working with the city on this important community project and sharing more details with residents in the near future.

“We are ready to work with our partners in city leadership to engage with residents about this opportunity,” she added.

Discussed, debated, and dreamed about for years, the wellness and recreation center is closer to reality than it’s ever been with these announcements. But the finish line remains a distance away, as it depends largely on the whims of voters from the city and school district in the voting booth in November.

Litchfield Area Community Foundation’s decision last week helps the effort, however. The Waterpark fund was established after the foundation received a monetary gift from the Gordon Crider estate in 2009.

The foundation’s statement included explanation of its resolution stating that funds “be used for the current community project for an indoor 8-lane community pool and/or recreation center in Litchfield.”

Funds would be released, the foundation said, if the city’s sales tax “and/or” the school district’s bond referendum pass.

“Board members expressed the wonderful gift that was given to Litchfield to be used for the enjoyment of the entire community,” the news release said.

The proposed center — given the name of Litchfield Area Recreation Center, or LARC, by a joint powers committee including city council and school board members — would include a four-section field house with an elevated walking track, an eight-lane indoor swimming pool, exercise rooms, dressing rooms, bathrooms and locker.

The concept was developed by a joint powers committee consisting of Litchfield School Board and City Council members and administrators.

Although developed jointly, the Litchfield Area Recreation Center is, in fact, two separate projects: one to be voted on by city residents and the other by school district residents. If both pass at approximately the same time, construction could begin jointly. If the city’s local option sales tax question passes, but the school’s bond question does not, only the city’s portion will be built — and vice versa.

The facility would be built to the immediate south of Litchfield High School. Tennis courts and a wrestling room currently on or near the site would be relocated. The facility would be accessed by students through a door between the high school and the north wall of the new building. The public would enter the facility from a new parking lot and door on the east wall. Key fob systems would be used for secure entry.

Most of the aquatic center would be funded by the school district; most of the field house area, which would include space for tennis, pickleball, basketball, field hockey and other activities, by the city. The two entities would split evenly the cost of office, reception and community areas.

If both projects are supported by voters, the city’s share would be about $13.7 million. A $5 million grant from the state of Minnesota would reduce the city’s obligation to $8,675,000, to be paid off over 20 years with an annual payment of $775,000.

If a local sales tax question is approved by city voters, that revenue would take $360,000 off the annual payment, leaving $415,000 the responsibility of property taxpayers. Operations and maintenance would be partially offset by memberships and fees, but would realistically leave an annual deficit of about $130,000-$140,000 for local taxpayers to cover. The city’s share of this would be $70,000.

“This effort speaks to the strength of our community, and our ability to come together and support important projects,” Litchfield City Administrator Dave Cziok said. “This kind of partnership is truly unique. You don’t see partnerships like this very often.”

Meals, sports participation will cost more at Litchfield Public Schools
  • Updated

It will cost a little more for school lunch and to participate in athletics this school year at Litchfield Public Schools.

In separate votes Monday, the Litchfield School Board unanimously approved meal program increases and a bump in activity fees and admissions for school sports.

Lunch prices will increase by 10 cents at each of the district’s three schools, a change recommended by Business Manager Jesse Johnson, who said he surveyed surrounding districts and found that even with the increase Litchfield will be about in the middle in lunch rates.

Federal law gives the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Minnesota Department of Education authority to set minimum prices for paid lunches. Districts that charged less than the average of $3.31 for paid lunches during the 2021-2022 school year could be required to increase their average price per meal.

The amount of increase is calculated, according to Johnson, using a 2% increase, plus the Consumer Prince Index (4.04%), which would be 6.04%.

With those calculations — and the rising cost of food — in mind, Johnson said, the meal increase for the coming school year is a kind of preemptive move that will keep the district close to minimum requirements.

“Many districts have opted for a small increase this year to try to offset (cost increases),” Johnson said Monday, which will help avoid a much larger increase in the future.

The 10-cent per meal increase will raise lunch rates to $2.50 at Lake Ripley Elementary, and $2.60 at the middle school and high school.

Meanwhile, the district’s breakfast price has increased just once during the past 13 years, Johnson said, so he also recommended that be raised by 10 cents, to $1.30.

The board also adopted the minimum adult prices — $1.90 for breakfast, $3.85 for lunch — as set by the Minnesota Department of Education’s Food and Nutrition Services.

Paying more to play

Like meal prices, both activity fees and admission to sporting events will increase this coming school year.

“It has been several years since there has been an increase in fees or admission prices,” Activities Director Justin Brown wrote in a memo to the board. “This will be my 8th year and we have never increased them.”

The board approved the proposal Brown made at its first meeting in July, to increase activity fees to $65 for middle school and $125 for high school athletics, and to $50 and $75, respectively, for middle and high school fine arts activities.

Brown's memo indicated there was a four-fold reason that necessitated the increases:

  • The cost of training services will increase substantially as part of a new collaboration between the district and Meeker Memorial Hospital. Brooke Hubert has been hired by MMH and will work exclusively with Litchfield high school student athletes. She will attend home high school athletic events and some middle school events, as well as away varsity football games, and she will travel with the LHS marching band during the summer.
  • The cost for certified Minnesota State High School League officials is increasing.
  • Equipment and shipping charges have seen a “significant increase.”
  • Transportation costs are rising.

Additionally, ticket prices for LHS activities will increase to $7 for adults and $5 for students. That’s a $1 increase for adults, $2 for students from the previous ticket price.

The new ticket prices match the rate suggested by the Wright County Conference, of which Litchfield is a member.

All of the increases can be expected to net the district about $20,000 more in revenue for the coming year.

“Even with the proposed rates we would remain the second-lowest fee schedule in the conference,” Brown said in his memo.