At the close of 2012, to predate the New Year (and the potential congressional changes in tax policies in the USA), we (my partner, Susan Lehnhardt, and I) impressed a conservation easement on the entire farm. Some zones, such as those around the house and outbuilding, orchards and gardens will continue to allow development and these uses -- as we're intending on erecting a greenhouse and replacing a few outbuildings. A forestry zone was defined where ongoing forest management will occur. We also created an alternative energy zone, so that we can access our wind generator for maintenance and replacement. The rest of the farm is this healed and recovering landscape with lush wildflowers and the diversity and productive wildlife that draws the neighbors, nature lovers and hunters.
The easement ensures our family's love and investment in restoring this land will be legally protected against deviations from the zoning and uses defined for each zone. However, the easement does not ensure that the ecological health of the land will remain intact. We have learned that continued vigilance from someone who can understand the unspoken language of the land is required to keep the land healthy. This health comes from keeping invasive plant and animal species from overrunning native species; ensuring that our soils are stable; and preventing nutrient-laden runoff from neighboring farm fields and feedlot operations from entering our farm or making sure that systems are in place to capture and cleanse the runoff water carrying the nutrients before reaching our restored land.
For nearly forty years this farm has raised much of the food we eat: vegetables, fruit, meat, elixirs such as apple cider (sweet and hard) and sweets including sorghum molasses and maple syrup. This same productive capacity attracts birds and other wildlife to live here and visit annually during migration. Fuel to heat the farm house and outbuildings is also provided as a part of restoring and improving the land by removing brush areas to rebuild healthy grasslands, forests and wetlands.
Neighbors admire the peach crop, offering to whip up peach cobbler, if we'd only share our peaches with them. Others swoon over the lush gardens and vegetable crops. Hunting deer and other wildlife lures other in. From the school and conservation groups who have walked the trails and explored the many faces and the soft underbelly of this vulnerable land, to the yearly participants of the cider and fruit picking parties, this land has inspired a powerful sense of place, a role and responsibility for our family to maintain and help the land as it nourishes us, and of late, to protect the land forever.
The relationship with land is mutualistic, another human experience of give and take, with a nearly silent partner. The land doesn't groan when ill or make any other primordial sounds of pain or angst. It's no wonder us humans don't always understand the conditions or needs of land.
Paying attention and tending to the condition and health of the land has been important for us. After purchasing the farm in the early 1980s, our inventories of the condition revealed all was not well. The name we bestowed, "Stone Prairie Farm," was pinned because bare bed rock and rock strewn subsoil's covered ridge tops and side slopes, a scab from erosion over years of farming straight up and down the 60- to 90-feet tall hills. And the stream in the bottoms reflected this accumulated topsoil: it was buried with tall agricultural weeds growing in the uprooted, displaced fertile topsoil. The green-as-pea-soup water in the stream was fed by the oozing nutrients from the sediment layer of top and mixed subsoils and from cattle manure. These scars were all too apparent; some scabbed over, beginning to heal, others were still gaping open wounds bleeding the nutrients, soils and life from the land.
For thirty-five years, we have worked to protect the health of the entire property. No better ways for us humans to find love, that to care for something, to nurture or nurse person, dog, even chickens, and land, back to health. But, we did stop with the notion of "back to something healthy defined by the agricultural uses prevailing over the southern Wisconsin landscape. We decided healthy meant to restore the land back to the prairies, wetlands, crystal-clear spring brooks and forests and savannas that used to occupy this land.
We are better than halfway through this process overall, with a few acres here and there still on the mend. Some areas will only mend so far, because of the bleeding that occurred over many years. There has never been any question in my mind that mending and restoring was the right path? The land told us the chosen plat was right and appropriate, and in locations where we had more to learn, weedy plants and continued degeneration told us another approach was necessary. The give and take extended down to the learning about the specific practices required to heal the wounds.
It is a good feeling to know that the legal protection of this land is now ensured with the easement. It is still an unsettling feeling to realize that someone like those in our family and friends, who have learned to read the land, which can hear the silent groans of Illness, and identify remedies much like a doctor making prescriptions, must still keep their finger on the pulse of the land forever. Our job now, in our remaining years on this land, is to continue to protect and nature the health of the landscape while ensuring that we "grow" a new crop of healers who are attuned to the land's needs, to continue the cycle of land education necessary to perpetually protect the landscape.
As founder, president and senior ecologist of Applied Ecological Services, an internally renowned restoration services company, Steven I. Apfelbaum is among the best-known leaders in ecological system restoration, conservation development and the restoration of hydrology in the world. He lives with his partner, Susan Lehnhardt, on Stone Prairie Farm in Juda, Wisconsin. Apfelbaum describes his renewed intent to protect his land now and in the future using a conservation easement.