For some Nebraska ranchers and farmers, conservation pays


November 21st, 2012

Lincoln, NE – While extreme weather is decreasing available land in Nebraska for farming and ranching, prices for agricultural products are climbing. It might seem that combination wouldn’t bode well for conservation efforts, but in fact, experts say more and more landowners in the state are taking advantage of the economic benefits of sustainability.

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The thick morning fog lingers on Gracie Creek Ranch, located near the Calamus Reservoir in central Nebraska. It’s one of the first chilly days of fall, and the moist air seems to stick to your skin.
Three deer, startled by the crunch of tires on the narrow gravel road, bound through the pasture and disappear behind a hill. There are no houses to be seen – no buildings, for that matter. Just acres and acres of gold and amber grass, punctuated by patches of sand and lines of barbed wire fence.

And thanks to the owners of Gracie Creek Ranch, that’s how it’s going to stay.

Lindsey Price and father Bob stand on their ranch near Burwell in central Nebraska. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)

“I was so excited to hear about this opportunity,” said Lindsey Price, a fourth-generation rancher who runs Gracie Creek Ranch with her father Bob and brother Aaron. “I mean, I thought probably everybody would want to be doing this.”

The opportunity she’s talking about is a conservation easement; the Prices recently sold the largest such easement in Nebraska history at more than 25,000 acres.

“We’re basically giving up some rights … to farm, and drill, and wind development –”

“Subdivisions,” Bob Price added.

“And subdivisions, that’s another huge one,” Lindsey Price agreed. “To me, it just gives us a chance to protect and preserve by giving up those rights.”

Cattle range on Gracie Creek Ranch near Burwell, Neb. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)

Two years of extreme weather have forced many to do whatever it takes just to remain afloat. The thought of signing a legal contract to not develop or seek maximum production might seem counter-intuitive, but for some, conservation practices have tangible economic benefits.

The Prices’ easement, for example, was valued at nearly $1.8 million – and in a way, they’re essentially being paid to keep doing what they’ve always done, said Ritch Nelson with the Nebraska office of the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

“Most often, the first one that’s thought of is the financial benefit, because they’re obviously compensated, in most cases, for the value of that easement,” he said, adding, “There’s always a lot of different motivations by different landowners based on what their goals are for their property.”
For the Prices, a main factor was the ability to know their land would be protected; Lindsey Price said when she lived in Oklahoma, she saw how quickly open spaces could disappear. But some landowners, while interested in conservation, don’t like the idea of giving up control over their property, despite the potential economic value of an easement. Experts say there’s myriad ways to be environmentally conscious and still make money.

Broken Bow Wind, LLC is a brand-new wind farm located outside Broken Bow, Neb. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)

Take Jeff Evans, for example, who owns farmland just outside Broken Bow in central Nebraska. Four wind turbines jut out from the ground on his property, part of a brand-new 14,000-acre wind farm with 50 turbines.

Like the Prices, Evans said he and his wife decided to participate in large part because of concerns about the environment.

“I think everyone is thinking about … 10, 20 years from now, where is the power going to come from, right?” he said. “And how are we going to generate it?”

And the money doesn’t hurt, either. According to Custer County Economic Development, almost $8 million was added to the local economy just during construction. On average, payments to the 14 landowners will total about $540,000 per year for the 25-year lease.

One of four turbines on Jeff Evans’ land near Broken Bow, Neb., part of a new 50-turbine wind farm. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)

But farmers or ranchers interested in conservation don’t have to do these grand gestures to receive financial benefits. While the wind turbines dominate the landscape on Evans’ property, a tiny orange sign reading “Corners for Wildlife Project” also plays a role.

For fields watered by pivot irrigation, there’s about seven or eight acres in every corner out of reach of the water streams that simply don’t produce as well. Groups like Pheasants Forever and Ducks Unlimited have cost-share programs that pay landowners to not farm certain parts of their property, like these corners, or land along riverbeds. Instead, they help them plant native grasses to create breeding habitats.

“You know, we just like to see the birds, the pheasants and the wildlife around us,” Evans said. “So for us, it’s more about the wildlife than hunting, but for a lot of guys, they enjoy hunting several times a year, and they know that in order to do that, we have to create the habitat and create the place for the birds to flourish.”

So not only are landowners paid to create the habitat, but they can also reap the financial benefits of hunting events. Every November, for example, Broken Bow’s One Box Pheasant Hunt draws enthusiasts from around the country.

Landowner Jeff Evans has set aside dozens of acres on his property for pheasant and quail breeding habitat. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)

Those kinds of direct and indirect financial incentives are key to increasing conservation efforts on farmland and ranchland, said Terry DeGroff, an agriculture financial management consultant from Burwell who helped with the Gracie Creek Ranch easement.

“I think (for) the most part, it factors in significantly,” he said. “They’re trying to stay profitable, and it’s just human nature that you think you have to take more. If there’s some forage out there, you better take it or else it’s going to waste …

“And many people, when they’re struggling to make a living, are going to harvest as much as they can.”

Nelson with the Nebraska Natural Resources Conservation Service agreed.

“With the ag economy, and how it fluctuates, there’s a need by producers that they see to be diversified, and even diversified beyond agriculture, to try to maintain income off that property,” he said. “And the variety of ways that they can do that is probably greater now than it was.”

But despite what could be increased interest or awareness of these kinds of programs, Bob Price from Gracie Creek Ranch stressed conservation and profitability can go hand in hand with or without government financial incentives.

“You know, I said I’m third generation, I’ve been in this business a long, long time,” he said. “I think one of the biggest challenges I see in the near-term future is that a lot of people are going to say (that) production agriculture cannot co-exist with conservation practices. And it really saddens me, because I feel just the opposite.

“I just feel very, very strongly about taking care of the land.”

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