A Helping Hand on Public Land
Dick Snyder pulls into a parking lot at the Poosey Conservation Area in Livingston County. Although it is a beautiful spring morning, he’s not here to hunt or fish. He’s here to work. Dick opens the gate and quickly jumps into the cab of his tractor. Rain is in the forecast, and he still has 150 acres of soybeans to plant and even more to plant back home.
Dick Snyder is just one of more than 360 Missouri farmers who contract to farm approximately 68,000 acres of land from the Department of Conservation for raising crops, grazing, and hay and seed collection. As they work the land, these farmers also help the Department improve wildlife habitat and maintain areas for the benefit of the public.
A full-time farmer who currently raises corn, soybeans and wheat on more than 3,000 acres in Livingston County, Dick has been permittee farmer at the Poosey Conservation Area since the early 1980s. That’s when he saw an advertisement in the local newspaper and successfully bid to farm cropland at the area.
One of three permittee farmers at Poosey, Dick farms 535 acres of cropland on the area. As part of his contract, he also plants sunflower and grain plots and leaves a percentage of the crop unharvested.
Farming and Wildlife
Dick said one of the biggest challenges about farming on a conservation area has been working with small fields. The Department maintains small crop fields because they provide better habitat for wildlife like quail and rabbits than large, expansive fields.
“It was hard to get equipment into some fields,” Dick said, “but the Department has helped out by constructing larger field crossings and openings on the area.”
A combination of row crops, field borders, fallow fields and shrub thickets provide excellent habitat for quail, rabbits and songbirds. The area manager at Poosey depends on permittees to keep farmable land in production.
“We couldn’t plant all the crop fields and food plots and maintain the area without their help,” said Phil Sneed, a Department resource forester who, along with three other Department staff, work with permittee farmers on the area.
The team also manages several other conservation areas and works with private landowners in 10 counties.
At the Whetstone and Reform conservation areas in Callaway County, Eugene “Butch” Richards has been contract farming 1,300 acres of cropland for three years. He also farms an additional 600 acres of private cropland.
Butch, who has been farming near Tebbetts since 1978, feels the real benefit to farming on conservation areas comes from being able to do extra work on the areas to offset some of the contract costs. Butch regularly plants food plots and sprays and disks fields to reduce his annual payment.
“The extra work really helps me with my cash flow at certain times of the year,” he said. “It’s just a good tradeoff. I benefit and the Department benefits.
Butch’s helper, George Burre, said he likes the fact that there are so many people hunting, fishing or just enjoying the conservation areas.
“When I’m on the area, people always ask me where to deer or quail hunt,” he said.
Farming for Ducks
At Grand Pass Conservation Area in northwest Saline County, three permittee farmers are helping the Conservation Department manage the area for all sorts of wildlife, but primarily for waterfowl and other migratory species.
Travis and Hoss Matthews from Norborne have been farming about 360 acres on the area since 2004, when they learned about the contract ground in the local newspaper. The Matthews brothers farm an additional 5,500 acres along the Missouri River.
Travis says it was a challenge to figure out how to bid on the extra work in the contract, but it’s definitely worth it. “Leaving the unharvested grain and planting food plots really helps us get down the cash rent we owe,” he explained.
Marty Bryan has been farming on Grand Pass since the early 1980s, and his dad farmed the area before then. Marty and his family are from the Marshall area and farm about 2,000 acres in Saline County. They also run a fertilizer-spreading and grain-elevator business, or as Marty says, “a little bit of everything.”
This year, Marty planted about 780 acres of corn and soybeans on the Grand Pass area. He also planted sunflower and food plots as a part of his contract. He said timing is everything at a wetland area.
“In the spring, we have to get the sunflowers in early enough so they will be ready by dove season,” he said. “In the fall, we have to get our crops out early enough so the guys can start flooding the fields for the ducks. Sometimes it can get pretty hectic around here, but we can always call the guys if we have questions.”
By “the guys,” Travis means wildlife management biologist Chris Freeman and wildlife biologist Robert Henry. During the fall harvest, Robert often rides in the combine to show where corn should be left standing.
“We have to be precise on where we leave the standing corn,” Robert said. “That way when we flood the field we have water in the unharvested grain, a place for hunters to hide and a dependable food source for ducks and geese.”
In southwest Missouri, The Conservation Department has contracts with native seed companies to harvest native grass and wildflower seeds.
Contracts to harvest seed from native prairies also result from a competitive bidding process. The Department receives a portion of the harvested seed, which is then used to restore prairie on other conservation areas.
David Darrow, a wildlife management biologist in southwest Missouri, said, “Seed collection by permittees is helping protect our remaining tallgrass prairie. … Over the past four years we have received around 600 pounds of native grass and wildflower seed [annually]. This seed alone will plant about 60 acres of new prairie per year.”
David also works with Wes Spinks, who has leased land on conservation areas for grazing for the past seven years. The contract Wes has with the Conservation Department allows him to graze certain grasslands between April 15 and Aug. 15. The two communicate regularly about the condition of the cows, fencing problems and how much grass is left.
David said grazing by cows ends up being a great tool for prairie chicken and quail management.
Whether by planting and harvesting crops, grazing, seed collection or completing extra services, such as leaving unharvested grain, planting food plots or spraying fields, permittee farmers play a critical role in helping area managers keep conservation areas attractive to people and wildlife.
Helping private landowners
In 1999, the Missouri Department of Conservation created the Private Land Services Division, which is dedicated to assisting Missouri landowners achieve their natural resource goals.
Private land conservationists and other resource professionals provide technical assistance, on-site visits, detailed conservation plans, and the latest information on cost-share programs to landowners.
In 2006, the Private Land Services Division made nearly 40,000 contacts with Missouri landowners. The Department also administers a private landowner assistance program that provides approximately $1 million in cost-share to Missouri landowners. Visit online and click on your county to find your local private land conservationist.
Bidding for Success
The Conservation Department rents land through a bidding process. Area managers solicit bids for the acres to be rented by advertising in local newspapers. Phil Sneed, resource forester in the northwest region, said the number of farmers submitting bids for an area depends on the location, size, shape and productivity of the fields.
Farmers may also agree to complete other services for the Department, such as planting food plots, spraying fields, light disking of idle areas and mowing. These extra services are clearly spelled out in the bidding phase and in the actual contract.
This extra work helps the Department by freeing up staff to work on other projects, and it helps farmers save money by reducing the amount of annual rent they owe to the Department. Farmers must determine the value of the extra projects when submitting their bid.