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LAKE MILLS - When land floods more often than it grows crops, why not let it go back as nature intended, to a flourishing wetland?

Ohne and Karen Raasch, of Lake Mills, WI, had goals to do just that with a property they purchased. Since the age of 12, Ohne grew up hunting on the land they acquired from a farmer friend in 2010. Karen also got her first buck 40 years ago on the 155-acre farm.

The Raaschs had always loved the land and wanted to own the property. They had many goals and aspirations for the land.

“When Ohne and Karen were able to acquire the farm, they really wanted to restore the property to its original beauty as a wetland,” said Mark Steinfest, Elkhorn Area Civil Engineering Technician, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

Ohne Raasch had built a working relationship with NRCS through the Farm Service Agency’s Conservation Reserve Program and through NRCS cost share assistance, providing for installing tree and shrub plantings in the past. Most recently, NRCS partnered with Raasch to acquire a permanent easement through the former Wetland Reserve Program (WRP), now known as Wetland Reserve Easements (WRE), and then completed the restoration through a long-term agreement.

With WRE, NRCS offers 30 year or permanent easements to landowners who want to maintain or enhance their land in a way beneficial to agriculture and the environment. “The land was previously being cropped; part of the farmland was showing signs of erosion; some conservation needed to be done,” explained Raasch. “I didn’t know much about the logistics of WRP when I started, but working with NRCS, I was excited about the opportunity to restore my land.”

Raasch has always had an interest in conservation and restoring land to bring wildlife back. “I started by putting out duck houses with my neighbor and it grew from there. At first I had 15, and now I have 350 on multiple properties! I’ve been involved in conservation organizations over the years and realize the importance of making good decisions for our natural resources,” he said.

The local Elkhorn NRCS Service Center worked with Raasch to develop a restoration plan for their property. A plan is completed so owners know what to expect throughout the easement process.

“We even worked together to figure out different soil types and what I could plant where, that would work best,” said Raasch.

“There are some changes along the way as needed, but we work together to come up with a preliminary easement management plan that is best for the land and landowner,” Steinfest said.

The restoration started by Raasch seeding highly eroded fields with native, local seed. Then, excavators dug and scraped 13 shallow ponds to remove sediment deposited from the upland crop fields. “This is really wet soil, so trucks had tracks instead of wheels on them. They moved the soil from the scrape ponds to the ditches that needed filling in.

The soil was placed in the ditches in layers so it would push the water out and seal well; the ditches were also built up for settlement. The specialty equipment kept the disturbed areas minimal,”Steinfest said.

They filled in 4 ditches and a small diversion; holding that water on the cropland and halting runoff.

“Wetland restoration also helps to eliminate invasive species, like reed canary grass, by putting water on it. Something unique about the property, there are lowland and upland areas on the easement,” Steinfest said.

Lowland areas are now restored wetlands with open water areas that will soon revegetate with wetland plants. Upland areas were seeded, oak and cherry hardwood trees were planted, and two small food plots for wildlife, including corn and soybeans, were also planted. Those crops are left over winter, to provide food and shelter for wildlife.

“The hardwoods planted, give great habitat for roosting birds like songbirds and doves and hold up to future management tools, like the use of fire,” explained Steinfest.

Raasch added, “The restored wetlands filled in really quick with water; they have never been close to drying out. I’ve seen a lot of increased wildlife recently; I’ve seen many more geese, Sandhill cranes, ducks and turtles.”

The Raaschs love seeing the results of what their efforts can do. They’ve seen an abundance of pollinators and beneficial insects also.

“When I walk around the restored prairie, I’ve seen an increase in bees and many other bugs I’ve never seen before,” Raasch said

. Since the restoration, NRCS Farm Bill Biologists visited and are excited about seeing many native species establishing on the easement.

Although the easement restoration was completed in the fall of 2015, Raasch still proactively works on the property, fighting invasive species like reed canary grass, buckthorn and box elder.

“After spraying, we collect and spread out native seed over the invasive areas, working on the areas one by one,” explains Raasch.

Easement restorations through WRP/WRE take time, so landowners need patience and commitment to the process. Mark explains, For more information about Wetland Reserve Easements, contact your local USDA Service Center or visit www.wi.nrcs.usda.gov.

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