Lee Tesdell - Landowner

Photo of Lee Tesdell

Lee Tesdell owns and manages Tesdell Century Farm located in Polk County, Iowa. His great grandfather bought the family farm in 1884 and it currently includes 80 acres of corn and soybeans, alfalfa hay, and streamside buffer strips. He employs a variety of conservation practices including no-till, cover crops, grass waterways, buffer and filter strips, a bioreactor, and a saturated buffer. He chatted with Farnaz Kordbacheh from the STRIPS team on March 9, 2018 about why he sees prairie strips as a good option for his farm. As a landowner, he also shared some of his experiences working with his farmer to establish and manage prairie strips.

Farnaz: How were you first introduced to prairie strips?

Lee: I first heard about the STRIPS project from Lisa Schulte Moore and Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI). I read about the program in the PFI newsletter and heard a talk at PFI annual conference. I have been a member of PFI for more than 10 years and have known Lisa for about 3 years. Lisa brings students to visit my farm every year in the spring. In 2017, I contacted Lisa and Tim Youngquist at Iowa State University and I said that I had an idea about how to implement prairie strips on my farm. I also talked with my neighbor who farms my corn and soybean acres. As a landowner, I think it's very important for me to work collaboratively with my farmer. Together, we made a plan for implementing prairie strips. Tim came out the day after Thanksgiving in 2017 and helped me seed 3 acres of prairie strips. The strips are in three lines, each about 45 feet in width. Now we are waiting to see what happens.

Farnaz: How did you go about establishing prairie strips on your farm?

Lee: I bought the seed and I rented the seeder from the Polk County Conservation Board. The seeder cost about $15 per acre to rent, so very affordable. My farmer let me use his tractor and Tim Youngquist helped me seed the prairie strips. We used a mixed of about 60 different prairie species. The mix contained a lot of grasses and forbs. I plan to mow the prairie strips three times during the summer of 2018, which is what Tim recommends for this first establishment year. I will have to wait for the second year to really see the prairie plants in my strips. I'm excited to see if I get more pollinators and beneficial insects on my farm with prairie strips.

Picture of tractor and seederFarnaz: What were your goals in establishing prairie strips?

Lee: I am always interested in soil health and water quality. For me these two go together. We who own and operate farms contribute to the excess nutrient problems in Upper Midwest watersheds, so we need to implement research-based practices to reduce the amount of nutrients leaving our farm ground. I also think we should diversify Iowa’s cropping system to reduce erosion, retain our topsoil, and improve our soil health. I am increasing the organic matter in my soils using no-till and cover crops. I am interested to know about the dynamics of the earthworm population affected by the increase in soil organic matter and less soil disturbance. If we can have healthy soil with higher organic matter with no-till, cover crops, and prairie strips, then together this system can sequester soil nutrients and the water leaving my farm would be cleaner.

Secondly, I think about pollinator and wildlife habitat. I have honey bees on my farm. I expect to see honey bees in the prairie strips and I am curious to see how much honey the bees make when prairie strips are incorporated into our farm. I have heard from my bee-keeper that it is difficult for him to keep his bees healthy and producing honey in the corn and soybean fields. So, I think my prairie strips will improve their habitat by providing pollen and nectar for them. I also would like to see native bees visiting my prairie flowers. 

The third aspect is the aesthetic quality: I'm looking forward to seeing beautiful prairie after the prairie strips establish.

Lastly, I'm also hoping Lisa will continue to bring students to my farm so they can learn about the variety of practices my farmer and I are using. They might tell their parents who could be farmers or farm landowners. I'm hoping they see the practical benefits of implemented prairie strips.

Farnaz: Do you think other landowners would be interested in implementing prairie strips on their land?

Lee: This is an important question. More than 50% of the farmland in Iowa is rented and not farmed by the owner. This means if you want to see any kind of conservation work on a farm, the landowner and the operator have to agree. The landowner has to give permission to do anything on his land. The operator is not going to spend any extra money unless there's a direct benefit to him. I like to promote collaboration between landowners and operators on conservation. We are not going to reach our goals unless we work together.

My farmer and I are an example of a positive working relationship toward farm production and conservation in that we work together. We've worked it out. I pay for the edge of field practices. For in-field practices, we talked and agreed on what to do, which is no-till, cover crops, and prairie strips.

My direct answer to the question is that the landowner has to understand the benefits of prairie strips first to convince the operator. Otherwise, no farmer will implement prairie strips on a rented farm by himself. The agreement between the landowner and farmer is a component that has to be taken to consideration. I think field days are one of the best ways to start this conversation. Land owners and farmers can see with their own eyes the benefits of the prairie strips and other conservation measures. 

Picture of hand holding soil with wormFarnaz: What recommendations do you have for other landowners interested in prairie strips?

Lee: The landowner and the farmer have to work together. They need to respect the land and respect each other. But, it is important for the portion of the land that is rented, you have to have agreement between the land owner and the farmer. Because otherwise farmer is not going to implement the prairie strips. It's more convenient and faster to plant the entire field to corn or soybeans, and he will not buy the prairie seeds. The landowner and farmer need to sit down two to three times a year and have coffee and lunch together and talk about this stuff so they can be on the same page. It is the landowner who will benefit more from the long term commitment to the land, so he has to personally interact with the farmer not just collect the check every year. These two have to be responsible and work closely together.

Farnaz: Is there anything else you'd like to share?

Lee: One thing that's pretty interesting is that a couple years ago I also converted a piece of my farm to waterway. I noticed that after we stopped spraying that part of the field some native plants naturally came back. There are 12 species including little bluestem, big bluestem, switchgrass, and some native forb. I assume these species have been dormant in the soil for a long time and did not have opportunity to come up due to the tillage and spraying. Other landowners might try this, too. Tim Youngquist from STRIPS is planning to visit this spring to help me identify the seedlings. I hope this can happen every year. 

If you would like to learn more about Lee Tesdell and his prairie strips, contact him at lee.tesdell@gmail.com. You can also find him on Twitter @leetesdell.