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Conservationists honored

Walt Kellen stands along the Kanaranzi Creek where J-hook rock weirs were installed to help control stream bank erosion. (Brian Korthals/Daily Globe)

ADRIAN — Driving in road ditches, along farm fields and through tall grasses glistening with hoar frost Thursday morning along the Kanaranzi Creek north of Adrian, Walt Kellen talked about the land that has been in his family for four generations and the efforts taken over the years to protect the soil and promote wildlife habitat.

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Walt and his wife, Alice, have farmed this land for 48 years. Over time, they’ve seen the Kanaranzi Creek — which flows through their property in Section 7 of Olney Township — slowly erode away the stream bank, taking valuable farmland with it.

“See that tree line over there?” Walt pointed out through the windshield of his pickup truck. About 100 feet away, tall trees mark where the Kanaranzi Creek flowed just 15 years ago. Spring and summer storms that bring rain and flooded farm ground have altered the creek’s course and would continue to do so, if not for the implementation of conservation practices.

The Kellens were approached by the Nobles County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) a few years back regarding the potential to add J-hook rock weirs in the creek. Created with large chunks of quarried rock, piled together and shaped to look like a backwards “J,” the weirs help to slow water in a creek and reduce the undercurrents blamed for stream bank erosion.

In this particular case, the weirs were promoted by the SWCD to also protect the nearby Minnesota 91 bridge from undercutting.

Kellen admits he was skeptical of the rock weir idea at first — he wasn’t sure the design would solve the problems. More than that, however, he was concerned about the cost.

The SWCD was persistent, though, and eventually found the funding — the Kanaranzi-Little Rock Watershed District covered the engineering costs, and federal Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) dollars were combined with state flood reduction money — to cover 100 percent of the project.

In August 2012, five rock weirs were placed in the Kanaranzi Creek on the Kellen property.

“I think they were the first (rock weirs) in the Kanaranzi,” he said. A neighbor also had several rock weirs established last year, and this year, the SWCD assisted two upstream landowners in putting additional rock weirs in place.

“It just keeps eroding over the years,” Kellen said of the Kanaranzi Creek stream bank. “You have to do something.”

It isn’t just the family’s willingness to install the rock weirs, but their years of conservation practices that led to the Kellen family’s selection as the 2013 Nobles County Conservationists of the Year. They will be recognized in early December, during the Minnesota Association of Soil and Water Conservation District’s annual convention.

Nominated by the Nobles SWCD Board, District Manager Ed Lenz said the Kellens not only participated in the stream bank restoration project, but also installed a 1,200-foot-long sediment basin to prevent gully erosion and provide flood storage.

“The Kellens have a long history with CRP, installing 50 acres of riparian buffers and grassed filter strips on their properties,” Lenz said. “The native grasses and trees on their farms provide valuable habitat for pheasants and whitetail deer in a region where habitat and winter cover is greatly lacking.”

Back in 1997, Kellen transformed about 100 acres of his cattle pasture into conservation acres. The land, located on both sides of the Kanaranzi Creek, is hilly with steep stream banks and features not conducive for farming.

Kellen said his main reason for shifting the pasture land into CRP was for wildlife, although he admitted with a laugh, “I was getting older and couldn’t catch the cows.”

In 1997 and 1998, Kellen received assistance from the SWCD to plant 30,000 trees and shrubs on the pasture land. Driving through the property Thursday, he pointed to blue seeds dangling from a cedar tree and spoke of how the land is a haven for wildlife

“Once you get rid of the cattle, it stops the erosion along the creek because the grass grows up,” Kellen said. Now, instead of cattle, he can see up to 150 deer gathered on the conservation land in the winter months.

“We have, over the years, done things for wildlife,” he said. “We’ve always liked to hunt and watch wildlife.”

Adding to the wildlife habitat, the Kellens completed two wetland restorations on old gravel pits, and plan to eventually restore an active gravel pit on their property to conservation land someday.

“CRP payments help to do that,” said Kellen. “These gravel pits aren’t the best to farm.”

“I think this CRP is great if you have ground like this,” he added. “We’ve had different areas of CRP for about 30 years.”

Kellen now farms with his son, Jason, under the watchful eyes of the next generation — four grandchildren with another on the way next spring. Jason and his wife, Kassy, reside on the property in rural Adrian, while daughter Lisa and her husband, Kurt, live in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Landowners interested in learning more about conservation practices and programs that may benefit their property are encouraged to contact Lenz at the Nobles SWCD office.

“The SWCD and NRCS technical abilities (are) available to … any other landowner or operator in the county,” Lenz said. “We encourage all landowners and operators in the county to approach our office with any erosion issues that they may have. There are a lot of practices and financial assistance possibilities available. Landowners and operators can receive estimates at no cost for potential practices.”

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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