Minnesota company brings trees, prairie fields to area

Matthew Lambert
Agri News
Brad Gatzlaff, of Zumbro Valley Forestry, drives a tractor and a hopper that will soon be filled with black walnuts and acorns, in Choice, Minn., to direct seed a field.

CHOICE, MN - Jon Alness and Brad Gatzlaff recently found themselves in a former soybean field in a sunken valley between the bluffs of Preble Township.

It's a nine acre field separated from a cornfield by the South Fork of the Root River. The field was plowed and disked by an old-time farmer who owned the land before selling it to the Choice Wildlife Management Area.

Soon, Gatzlaff will hop on the tractor, with a hopper full of black walnuts and different variations of acorns including red oak, white oak, burrow, northern pine oak, shagbark hickory, and bitternut hickory.

Thousands of walnuts and acorns filter out the back of the hopper, the beginning of a process that'll take years to come to fruition.

Alness and Gatzlaff, who've owned Zumbro Valley Forestry for 30 years, are used to playing the waiting game. They'll return to the field for the next couple years to make sure it's growing correctly and to spray chemicals for the next two years.

The pair met in college at the University of Minnesota, when they went on a field session their junior year.

Alness told Agri News that his interest in forestry has always existed. He saw the possibility of owning a business that plants trees on private property, as well as state and federal contracts, when on a school trip his sophomore year of college.

Alness said his class went to Lake City to meet with Terry Helbig, a recently retired Department of Natural Resources forester. Helbig explained to the students the need for direct seeding on private land.

Alness saw his chance.

Gatzlaff grew up in the Altura area, frequently visiting Whitewater State Park.

Both Alness and Gatzlaff worked for the DNR before opening their business. They decided to leave their positions when the Conservation Reserve Program was established.

The CRP was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1985 so farmers could remove their land from agricultural production for 10 to 15 years in a yearly rental payment plan.

When CRP started, Alness and Gatzlaff said the program pushed contractors to plant trees, but now the program is pushing prairie land, a field they also specialize in.

Alness said they saw the transition from trees to prairie land coming and adjusted accordingly 15 year ago, saying any business that can't adjust won't be around long.

"You just find avenues to do business," Alness said. "There's very few businesses that can stay sedentary."

They specialize in literally everything, from seed to harvest.

They used to do hand planting, but after planting 30,000 trees, they vowed to never do that again. They opted for machine direct seeding.

They collect the black walnuts and acorns from all over, picking up as few as a handful to as many as thousands.

Their company spans Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa.

"If we're not hunting, we're working," Alness said.

It makes things difficult as well, with acorns and walnuts not being available until the fall, and the need to establish the nuts before the frost comes.

They work seven days a week. The pair found a niche market, being able to do a job they love that hardly gets any attention or thought of where the trees and prairie fields come from.

With its staff of six full-time employees, Zumbro Valley Forestry estimates planting 150 to 200 acres annually. Alness and Gatlaff aren't interested in slowing down anytime soon.

"We love it," Alness said. "I just turned 60 and everybody starts talking about retirement. I've got no interest in it."