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Scott Rall: Easements are money in your pocket

Scott Rall.jpg
Scott Rall

So what exactly is a conservation easement? The definition could be 10,000 words long because there are so many different kinds of easements.

In the short version, it is an agreement between a land owner and third party to operate and manage specific land in a certain way. The easement program I am referring to today is the Minnesota Prairie Bank Easement.

Native prairie covered large swaths of the Midwest prior to settling the continent. There were millions of acres of grass that millions of buffalo used to call home. Of the millions of acres that once existed there is less than two percent of those native prairie acres remaining in the state.

Native prairies are the most endangered ecosystems in North America. Millions of years of natural soil building created the rich soils that are now almost all converted to row crop production in the farm belt called the upper Midwest.

Native prairies were species rich and very diverse. In an area 100 by 100 feet square it was common to have more than 100 different grass, forb and flower species present.

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I call native prairies much like the Amazon rainforest. If you get down on your hands and knees and really investigate it, you’ll see.

A prairie easement basically says that for a one-time payment upfront to the land owner they will manage the property for the benefit of prairie. This means you could not build a house or a road on the easement area. You could not convert those acres to row crop agriculture. It protects the ventilation in a way that it can be there forever.

In southwest Minnesota, all of the land suitable for farming is already being farmed. There is very little dirt left that could be converted to row crop and be considered quality farm land. Any conversion that takes place now ends up being very marginal farmland at best.

These easements are most likely to be located on steep hillsides or very wet meadows. Current pasture can also be a candidate if any of the native prairie plants remain. Many pastures have been sprayed with chemicals for weed control about 100 times in the past 100 years, and these chemicals would have killed off any living native flowers or forbs. One amazing aspect of native prairies is that their seeds can lay dormant for 100 years and germinate once they have been disturbed. This would have aided buffalo in the past, but light disking can achieve great results in some locations.

Some easements still allow periodic grazing or haying. It is usually 25 percent of the tract per year.

I enrolled 21 acres in the program in 2006. It is still the only one in Nobles County. I used the one time payment to pay down my loan and I still own the property and control access to it. I use it for hunting and wildlife watching primarily.

The easement does not inhibit my use of the property for the activities I use it for.

Many farms have that one spot you cannot easily get to. These could be candidates for the Minnesota DNR easement program.

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Why not take the check and then still be able to hay or graze it rotationally? The current rate for enrollments is about $2,500 per acre up front.

Remember, you still own the dirt and control who and when access is available. Taxes are also moderated on these aces. It seems a win-win for acres that are unproductive for normal farming practices.

If you would like more information or are interested in at least considering this attractive option, call the prairie specialist at the Minnesota DNR. His name is Rhett Johnson and he is a very cool and smart guy. His number is 507-832-6042.

I learned how to identify two new plants. They are spike sedge and smooth cone sedge. -- two wetland grass species present in my easement area that I had never even seen before.

I love hanging around with smart people. Rhett is one of those people. Give him a call.

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