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Farmable terraces help crop production, reduce gullies

julie buntjer/daily globe John Penning (left) along with his grandsons, Garrett and Rhett Penning, stand next to one of the tile intakes on a parcel where farmable terraces were installed to reduce gullying and improve crop production.

WILMONT -- Cost-share dollars offered through the Heron Lake Watershed District (HLWD) can be used for a variety of projects. For Mark and Julie Versteeg of rural Brewster, cost-share funds helped to construct a sediment basin on the southwest shore of East Graham Lake; and for John Penning's family farming operation near Wilmont, HLWD programs were targeted to reduce soil erosion, address flooding issues and improve production on land that wasn't always so ideal for growing crops.

The Pennings installed their first water and sediment control basin (farmable terrace) more than 30 years ago. Farmable terraces improve the ability to farm sloping land, reduce gully erosion, trap sediment, reduce and manage on-site and downstream runoff and improve downstream water quality.

In the last year, the HLWD has provided cost-share on more than 20 farmable terrace projects within the watershed district.

"You go into a cost-share program and you have to maintain them for 10 years," said John Penning. "After that, why would you tear them out? They're very functional."

Aside from replacing a few stand pipes (tile inlets) and repairing a smashed tile, Penning has had to do very little to maintain even the oldest of the terraces. When constructed, they were estimated to have a minimum 10-year lifespan.

In the last three-plus decades, Penning has been instrumental in installing nearly 40 farmable terraces on 10 different parcels. Some of the land is family-owned, and other parcels are rented. He gives a lot of credit to the landlords for their willingness to support conservation-minded projects.

"It boils down to being good stewards of the soil," he said.

Just like an absentee homeowner may not realize when a faucet leaks or a light bulb burns out, Penning said landowners who haven't farmed the land for several years -- or maybe never farmed it -- may not realize the damage being done to the soil during big rain events.

It's his responsibility, as the crop producer, to identify problems and help find a solution.

"For most of them, it's something they don't realize," he said.

The bottom line in making improvements, Penning said, is to ensure it has a long-term positive impact on crop production and increases land value.

"It's usually in everyone's best interest," he added.

Still, he approaches all potential projects on newly acquired or leased land cautiously.

"You have to have a couple of years to see what Mother Nature does with you, for you, to you -- all of the above -- and then if it looks like it's a continuing problem or a past problem, you look to see what's available and if the people involved will work with it," Penning said.

When it comes to addressing water flow on crop ground, it isn't just the landowner who needs to be consulted -- sometimes it's an entire neighborhood.

"It's people above you, people below you (in the watershed)," said Penning.

Standing at the base of a rolling hillside southeast of Wilmont Tuesday afternoon, Penning explained that on this particular farmable terrace project, it involved working with three adjoining landowners.

"You look for long-term relationships," he said. "There are some that won't cooperate in joint projects because they see no immediate cash benefit. You need good people to start with, you need a plan, and you need longevity. It takes some pretty good dollars."

On one parcel, the Pennings waited more than 10 years to start a project because a neighboring landowner wasn't willing to grant access for a tile outlet to make the terraces feasible.

"If you can't get rid of the water, you can't do much with it until you have an outlet," he said.

When that neighbor's land changed owners, it moved the project forward.

While Penning received 75 percent cost-share from the HLWD on his last farmable terrace project, that isn't always the case. Landowners and leasers need to be willing to put in some cash to make a project work, he said.

"We're in a very good farm economy right now, but there's a lot of years when things are pretty tough," Penning said.

He may not have completed as many farmable terrace projects on the land he farms had it not been for cost-share dollars, but he certainly sees the benefit now.

"(With farmable terraces) there's no land that you idle, no weed strips to mess with," he said. "You get away from the gullying, which is very hard on equipment, and your nutrients stay put.

"You get away from a lot of erosion and you get a much more consistent stand and yield," he added. On one particular parcel, Penning installed 17 farmable terraces.

While there are numerous advantages to installing farmable terraces on highly erodible lands, there are some initial drawbacks as well.

"The person farming the land when the terraces are built gives up some yield in the first couple of years in the area where the work is done because of all the compaction and disturbance of the soil," Penning said. "There are some negatives with it at first, but you look at the long-term picture."

Over the years, Penning has not only worked with the HLWD, but the Kanaranzi-Little Rock Watershed District, and both the Murray and Nobles County Soil and Water Conservation Districts as well.

In addition to installing farmable terraces, he has utilized cost-share programs to construct waterways and controlled drainage structures, add filter strips and complete a feedlot containment structure for the family's cattle operation.

"With all of these things, it's longevity," Penning said. "It's not like you're going to farm (the land) for a couple of years and pull out.

"You need to look at the next generation -- make it a little bit better," he added. "We're looking to pass this on to the fifth generation."

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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