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Landowner adds trees and shrubs to enhance, diversify Allamakee County century farm

  • 8/29/2023 2:03:00 PM
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Sandy Koehring was cautious when making changes to the family farm. After all, the Postville-native was born and raised here and it’s been in the family for more than 110 years. So, when she decided to convert part of her land into trees, she started small.

“I didn’t want to dive right in,” she said. “I wanted to take baby steps.”

Her goal was to prevent soil erosion and protect the groundwater, while saving the best ground for row crops.

She met with Dave Asche, district forester with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources Elkader office, to walk the property and discuss her options.

The first baby step was in 2008 when she enrolled 8.6 acres into the Conservation Reserve Program, by converting a small portion of pasture to trees. The following year she took another baby step, enrolling 7.8 acres, and then another 7 acres in the third year. By year four, Koehring was ready to dive in – she enrolled another 31 acres into CRP.

In the beginning, she tried different mixes of trees and shrubs, then focused on practices and species she liked. Her property now includes Norway spruce, white pine, eastern red cedars, nannyberry, dogwood, high bush cranberry, white oak, red oak, chinkapin oak, hazelnut, walnut, chokecherry, and more all from the State Forest Nursery.

Today, nearly half of Koehring’s 120-acre farm is enrolled in CRP. “I took the worst of my ground – wet soils, poor pasture, hills and sink holes – and put it into tree plantings and grass and it’s the best thing I have done,” she said.

The success of her tree planting didn’t happen by accident – it took research, planning and working with an experienced private forester for it to all come together.

Asche researched the soil types, which guided his decisions on which tree or shrub would grow best in each situation when writing the tree plan. He included tree and shrub diversity as a protection in case disease comes through. Once the plan was finished, Koehring contacted a local private forester to manage the planting.

“It’s important to plant the trees at the right depth and distance with the contours on the property, and private foresters are available to provide that service,” Asche said.

Getting the planting off on the right foot was important.

The young trees had tubes placed around them for protection as they grew. The private forester also provided the initial follow up spraying to reduce competition.

Koehring played an active role in helping the tree planting succeed. When the rain didn’t come, she would hook on to her 500-gallon water buffalo and applied 1,500 gallons of water weekly to the conifer seedlings. She also mowed around the trees to keep the weeds down.

Walking along the initial planting to a back corner of her property is a cabin she built in 2009. A young buck bounded away, spooked by the unwanted visitors. The once visible cabin is now hidden from view. 

Here she enjoys watching fawns and seeing and hearing turkeys and pheasants, as well as other wildlife and song birds. There are dozens of antlers hanging off the front porch, evidence of successful shed antler hunts.

“You got to get it started or you won’t see it,” she said of the tree planting. “The more I see wildlife, the more reassured I am that I’m protecting the soil. I’m improving this farm by planting trees.”

Another one of her goals was to help bring back bees and butterflies and the flowering prairie plants, flowering shrubs and milkweed is accomplishing just that.

There’s a ‘Tree Famer’ sign hanging on her fence at the gravel road. As her CRP contracts expire, she plans to re-enroll the sections to keep trees on the land. “What am I going to do, bulldoze those trees? No, I’m going to re-enroll for another 15 years,” she said. “Hopefully, that sign helps neighbors want to do this, too.”

Her vision in 2008 of leaving her century farm in better shape has become reality.

A mowed path through a green area where Sandy Koehring converted a portion of her 120-acre century farm into a mix of trees and shrubs through the Conservation Reserve Program.