Wetland Program Works
Tom Mertensmeyer loves to tell the story of how his mom and dad, Nellie and Lawrence, turned part of their 260 acres along the Missouri River bottom in Carroll County into a haven for waterfowl.
They bought the property in 1943, and over the years the hard-working couple made it both their home and business, raising seven kids there and farming the land.
Although Lawrence was a good farmer, he struggled to keep some of his most flood-prone acres in production. “Because they had a tendency to be wet,” Tom said, “we often had to replant those acres and then keep our fingers crossed the rest of the year, hoping it didn’t rain too much.”
In the ’60s, Lawrence found a better use for those wet acres. He was an avid hunter and especially loved duck and goose hunting, so it made sense to him to turn his most flood-prone land into prime waterfowl habitat. On the 8 acres he selected for the project, he pushed up some small berms and made a duck pond.
“Dad also belonged to Ducks Unlimited,” Tom said. “Every spring he would receive a few dozen mallard duck eggs from the organization, and we would hatch them in an incubator or find a chicken that was sitting on eggs and switch them.”
Tom remembered the ducklings having the run of the yard. They flew away each fall, he said, but every spring, like clockwork, ducks would return to lay their eggs in the flower beds, garden, barn, or anywhere they could find a spot to build a nest and hatch a family.
This charming cycle of farming, duck rearing and hunting was interrupted in 1970, when Lawrence succumbed to melanoma cancer. Lawrence’s death left Nellie, at age 52, to operate the farm. Tom says she kept a positive attitude and did what was necessary to keep going.
Over the years, Nellie became more active in her community, and continued running the farm, with local family members sharing the load. Weather fluctuations, however, made her farm income unpredictable and as she grew older it became harder for her to manage the ups and downs. Tom and his brother, Steve, knew they needed to find a way to stabilize Nellie’s farm income so she did not have to worry and could concentrate on her volunteer work.
Tom is a retirement planner by profession and said he’s seen the good, the bad and the ugly of retirement scenarios in the past 19 years. “My recommendation is to start retirement planning sooner rather than later,” he said.
Tom and Steve, a Kansas City businessman, researched standard arrangements between landlords and tenants in Missouri. They discovered that the cash rent model was best for their farm. Unlike sharecropping, cash rent does not require the landlord to pay for any of the production costs.
“Nellie gets a check twice a year,” Tom said, “regardless of the price of commodities or how good or bad the crop year—plus she doesn’t have to share expenses.”
Once they settled on this approach, Tom and Steve invited several trusted local farmers to offer bids on just the best crop acres on the farm. After considering cash rent bids, as well as management approaches, they accepted the offer that made Nellie feel most comfortable.
With the cash rent arrangement in place, Tom went on to review available farm conservation programs for the flood-prone acres.
“We already had part of the farm in the Conservation Reserve Program and a small 5-acre CP-9 wetland,” he said, “but when we heard about the CP-23 wetlands, that was the Aha! moment—especially in view of our father’s legacy. We thought it was a perfect fit for our family farm, especially for those floodable acres.”
Honoring Dad’s Conservation Ethic
The Conservation Practice-23 program allowed the Mertensmeyers to take the 65 acres of cropland that were most vulnerable to flooding out of production and receive a dependable fixed payment per acre. The net result was a risk-free, guaranteed fixed income for Nellie, year after year.
“Mike McClure, a wetlands biologist with the Department of Conservation, made it easy for us,” Tom said. “He designed the project. We hired a dirt work contractor who was familiar with building CP-23s, and the project was done.”
That fall, the place was covered with ducks. Tom said the whole family, including Nellie, felt like they had done something really good for the environment and for wildlife. “If my father was alive today,” he added, “he would love it.”
Hunt Clubs Help
The CP-23 program led directly to another income source for Nellie when Tom and Steve realized they could offer the wetlands they’d developed to trusted hunt clubs.
Two Missouri hunt clubs pay a set annual fee to hunt two separate wetland parcels on the property. Splitting the property ensures that the clubs will not have to compete with each other or with other hunters for birds during the hunting seasons.
Thanks in large part to Tom’s and Steve’s efforts to secure their mother’s retirement, Nellie now is able to count on a steady annual income on each acre. The payments come in at the same times each year, and there is very little accounting to do and few input costs.
“And, she doesn’t have to worry about the weather,” Tom added. “This is a great way for a retired farmer to operate.”
CP-23 is a “continuous” Conservation Reserve Program practice. This means it targets land that will most benefit water quality and wildlife. All continuous CRP practices offer financial incentives, including an annual, per-acre soil rental payment and restoration cost-share (50 percent plus an additional 25 percent—or a total of 75 percent).
To qualify, your land must have soils that are at least 51 percent hydric (wetland soils), meet cropping criteria as determined by the Farm Service Agency and be located within the 100-year floodplain of a permanent river or stream. The contract length can be either 10 or 15 years.
Ducks Unlimited, The Missouri Conservation Department and the USDA offer a special CP-23 Enhancement program in two Missouri focus areas: the Middle Missouri Focus Area and the Confluence Focus Area. This program allows landowners to “enhance” their CP-23 contracts by seasonally flooding cropland adjacent to the CP-23 treatment. In this situation, DU and MDC will pay 100 percent of the enhancement costs, not to exceed $10,000.
For more information on USDA programs, contact your local service center or visit the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Farm Service Agency websites .
— Mike McClure