Al Messner, 71, a farmer and retired high school math and science teacher, owns 345 acres near Oakfield.
He has been a longtime conservation advocate. Messner has been participating in the Conservation Reserve Program since it began in 1986.
"We had quite a bit of land that was hilly and we had stones. I started putting land in the CRP. I planted trees on five acres," Messner explains.
Over the years, Messner participated in wetland restoration with help from the Wisconsin DNR, and put in two ponds on his farm.
Three branches of Oak Center Creek, which is part of the Rock River Watershed, flows through Messner's farm. His Fond du Lac County farm is located less than two miles from the northern edge of Horicon Marsh.
"In 2007, Erv (Lesczynski, watershed planner) came to me and convinced me to put in grass filter strips and develop a nutrient management plan for my farm. Once the filters were in, Messner seeded a mixture of prairie grasses and wild flowers on his grassed filter strips.
"We enjoy the purple prairie clover and Black-Eyed Susans and the wildlife all spring, summer and fall," says Judi Messner, Al's wife.
"Establishing these filter strips took longer than I thought," Messner says. "It will be six years this spring since we put them in. I had to mow the buffers the first four years to control thistles. Last year, I only mowed 50% where there were thistles and by the end of summer I had no thistles. Every year I mow a little less.
Messner has noticed other improvements.
"Before the grassed buffers were put in, I used to see fertilizer going in the ditch when I spread fertilizer on land near the ditches," Messner says. "Now that's not happening. Everyone benefits from this, but the environment is the real winner," Messner says.
"You will never completely eliminate erosion in a field, but the buffers are the last piece of the puzzle to
keep sediment and phosphorus out of Oak Center Creek and ultimately the West Branch of the Rock River and Horicon Marsh," Messner says.
The buffers provide nesting cover adjacent to the water.
"Because we have saved the soil, we are benefitting from having a lot more wildlife, turkeys, deer, fox, songbirds, ducks, geese, herons, egrets and different kinds of birds we never saw before."
In addition to all of his conservation efforts, Messner is still actively farming 125 acres.
Landowners participating in the Rock River Watershed receive economic benefits from the program. Messner says he is getting paid $150 an acre per year for 15 years for the land that is now part of the grassed filter strips
"I probably could get more today if I rented the land out. But if I had to do it over, I'd certainly do it again," he says.
Landowners in the Rock River Watershed, which includes the Horicon Marsh, have installed 26 miles of buffers.
"When we layout buffers along streams, we lay out straight lines for the remaining crop fields," Lesczynski explains. "That's important so the remaining fields can be farmed efficiently.
"There are many cases where the field lines are not straight, but the buffers are laid out in straight lines," Lesczynski adds.
Vance Glewen, who farms 850 acres in the southwest corner of Fond du Lac County and in the southeast corner of Green Lake County began participating in the Rock River Watershed Program in 2007. His farm is located along the South Branch of the Rock River.
"I've always done a lot of conservation practices on my farm," Glewen says. "I've had a conservation plan on the farm for many years."
Then in 2007, Glewen attended a meeting to learn more about establishing a nutrient management plan for his farm and about establishing grassed buffers to keep sediments and nutrients from entering the South Branch of the Rock River.
Glewen created traps – shallow scrapes – around the marshes on his land to prevent anything from running into the marsh.
"It turned into a wildlife habitat," Glewen says. "It's still production ag, but it has been treated with buffers and sediment traps."
He also has a nutrient management plan and an overall conservation plan including crop rotation."
Glewen says in addition to cost sharing 90% of the expense of establishing the grassed buffers, there is financial incentive to participate in the program.
"We laid out the economics of renting the land out, vs. farming it vs. putting it in his program," he explains. "What this does is provide income off that acreage and we don't have to plant or harvest this land. You know for 15 years what your income off those acres is."
Glewen says it's also nice not to have to come back and plant the land near the marsh when it dries out in the spring, typically after the rest of the land in the field is already planted. He also likes his silt traps.
"There's a huge benefit to the silt traps because you can use the soil on areas of the field that need the soil, like the top of the hill. It's kind of like reverse erosion," Glewen explains.
"I did this to help my land first and foremost, but I get an immense feeling of satisfaction seeing all of the birds and wildlife around the marsh," Glewen says. "We have white pelicans, shoveler ducks, a bald eagle and hundreds of egrets. We get birdwatchers out here who are just excited about what they see. It's wonderful to know we're helping the environment."