By Denise Thornton, Driftless Landowner and Environmental Blogger for digginginthedriftless.com.
When Dale and Phil Grimm found their land in 1995, it was languishing under the haphazard attention of 20 years of rental farming. Today their 115 acres are home to thriving prairies, savanna, wetlands, woodland, and a restored trout stream.
“I grouse hunt, and I loved it out here in the Driftless,” says Phil. “In the early 1990s, we did a lot of exploring on Sundays by visiting land that was for sale. She and I would hike around two or three farms in an afternoon. It was a fascinating history lesson of the land.”
Phil and Dale lived in Madison, where he practiced dentistry and she taught environmental education as part of a group of naturalists now under the auspices of Madison Community Recreation. Dale took Reading the Landscape classes from Virginia Kline, who was UW-Wisconsin Arboretum’s head ecologist. Today Dale heads the Friends of the Madison School Forest.
“I had become attuned to different ecosystems, and when we walked farms, I would recognize soil types and plant communities,” says Dale. “We came to this property late in the day. We almost skipped it. We saw the trout stream, then we walked under a cliff harboring hemlock and yellow birch.”
They had no more time to explore that Sunday, but Dale came back the next day and told Phil, “We need to buy this land.” Their discovery coincided with an inheritance from Phil’s father, an Iowa farmer, and it seemed right to use the funds for land.
“We bought it without a single clue about what we were getting into,” says Phil. “I had a full dental practice, and we didn’t expect to do much at first. I saw a few things that might need attention, so I brought my string trimmer from home and tried using it on the first trail. I quickly realized we were in way over our heads.”
Fortunately, at the same time they were buying their property, Dale and Phil had attended an Aldo Leopold reading at the Shack. “When I read A Sand County Almanac, I was really struck by his wisdom and deep intellect. We read it again yearly. He inspired us to be good stewards of the land, and every time we do something out here, we think of him.”
A Sand County Almanac was the first volume in an ever-growing library on land management and inspired the Grimm’s first five acres of cropland conversion to prairie. They got good practical advice and seed from Ion Nursery and Prairie Moon Nursery.
The Grimms have also attended two sessions of the Wisconsin Coverts Project, an annual 4-day seminar on habitat restoration. Spreading the word on native habitat restoration may be like restoring prairie. It takes time to see results. “We’ve tried to share what we’ve learned there with our neighbors. We hope we’ve made some progress with that.”
After reading that seed must be exposed to cold and moist conditions before planting, they bought a used fridge for their garage. “In the spring, we asked the farmer who rented some of our land to plow the area,” Phil remembers. “He said, ‘Let me get this straight. You want me to stop growing corn so you can grow weeds?’”
The Grimms came to realize that land restoration work also included community relations. “We had to deal with the farmer who had rented the land for 20 years. We had no equipment, and, being city kids, we needed his assistance to plant. We had to learn rural politics and what it took to be a good neighbor.”
Their 5-acre planting came up beautifully. “We had prairie!” says Phil.
Their next effort was 12 acres restored through the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). “We spent $900 an acre for that seed, which a neighbor drilled in, but we planted the seed too deep and nothing germinated.” They changed to sowing by hand in the fall, which has been a very successful strategy for them, as their prairie now covers 45 acres.
The Grimms now work with a local prairie burning service and are considering a burn in their woods to benefit fire-tolerant species like oak.
The next venture for Phil and Dale was wetland restoration. From old maps, hydrology and soil studies, they learned that their lowest field along Willow Creek had originally been a wetland. They filled the ditch that had imperfectly drained the land and dug three scrapes down to the original soil horizon.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was a huge help with a plan. “We found a local contractor who did the earth-moving work beautifully.”
“After just three weeks with no rain, they were all full of water,” says Phil. Then overnight, the smallest seep emptied. “We realized the farmer had tiled the field, but over time the tiles had become blocked with mud. Once we dug our seeps, the water pressure reopened the tiles. We broke the tiles, and it’s been a beautiful wetland ever since. After 20 years as a cornfield, repeatedly disced and herbicided, the very first year, we had wetland plants coming up.” Installing the wetland scrapes removed soils eroded from the uplands and exposed the original wetland soil, complete with seeds lying in wait for their moment in the sun.
A few years later they restored wetland on the other side of their drive with the same results. “Sandhill cranes started nesting,” says Dale. “Then eagles built a nest above the wetland. After that, our muskrats and a lot of animals started disappearing.”
The Grimms have also worked on the Willow Creek trout stream where it comes through their land. In heavy rainfall, it can rise as much as eight feet, and was gouging ever closer to the slightly higher ground of their re-established wetlands.
To avoid draining their wetlands and to improve the stream, they once again worked with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, bringing in tons of rock and regrading the banks of the creek.
Their section of Willow Creek tends to stay below 60 degrees F.
Trout fishers have reported hatches of mayflies, grasshoppers, and a lot of terrestrial animals. “I’m told the creek runs 1,000 brown trout a mile,” said Phil. “In the fall the water is alive with trout nesting. That’s another reason why the eagles like it here. They have their own fishery.”
A life-long learner with an eye for community, Dale jumped head-first into forestry as the new president of the local Bad Axe Chapter of the Wisconsin Woodland Owners Association. She didn’t let her inexperience in forestry slow her down. After all, she knows it’s fundamentally about growing a community of people that care for their land.
The Grimms have also protected their land with a conservation easement they prepared with the help of the Wisconsin DNR, and they started an endowment with the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin to be used for maintaining their restoration efforts in the future. The two have actively planned for land’s future, understanding it is part of the legacy they will leave behind.