One hundred and forty years ago, Jim Pechacek’s family purchased a plot of land in southern Washington County near the present-day location of Lost Valley Prairie Scientific and Natural Area. Over the years, the Pechacek family coaxed corn and vegetables from the rich, brown soil, tended farm animals, and grew their family. Today, Jim and his wife Caroline continue the family farming tradition with an emphasis on conservation and sustainability.
“We have cows, goats and chickens,” Jim explains, “but we consider ourselves to be semi-retired.” They rent out 50 acres of tillable land to Steve Herman, a local producer who has farmed with their family since Jim’s father owned the land, and have also worked with the Washington Conservation District and USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to protect water quality and improve soil health. Jim thanks neighbor Tim Behrends, a Board Supervisor with the Washington Conservation District, for connecting him with the support services available through these local and federal programs.
“I had Angela Defenbaugh out from the Conservation District and then she referred me to Mary Jo Youngbauer, who helped us to create a conservation plan and connect with staff from NRCS,” says Jim. Currently, they are implementing numerous conservation practices on their land, including using cover crops and practicing no-till to reduce erosion and soil compaction, employing a multi-year prescribed grazing plan, and conducting soil tests to ensure proper fertilizer application rates. The cover crops also help to prevent nitrate from leaching into sensitive groundwater resources. Most recently, they installed a Ritchie automatic livestock waterer to provide their animals with water in the winter and reduce erosion during the wet spring season.
“Everything that the WCD and NRCS have done for me has just made my life easier,” Jim laughs.
He’s observed that yields on their land have gone up over the years and suspects that the vegetative residue left over from last winter’s cover crops helped their fields to stay productive when other farmers were struggling with the drought. “Back when my grandfather was farming, it would be a good deal to get 50 bushels an acre. Now it seems like the sky is the limit!”
When neighbor Tim Behrends hosted a soil health field day this past summer, Jim attended and says they measured the temperature and organic content of fields with and without cover crops. As a retired ag scientist, he appreciates events like this that bring science into farming. Jim also notes that the cover crops provided an added bonus of feeding their goats in the spring. “We turned them loose into the fields and they went to town.”
Though many farmers in southern Washington County are selling their land for development, Jim says they intend to keep their farm in the family for many more generations. “It’s important to keep land in agriculture for food security, maintaining open green space, and carbon sequestration. And, when our kids retire, we’d like to give them a place where they can downsize and enjoy country life as well.”
This week, Washington Conservation District recognized Jim and Caroline as the 2022 Outstanding Conservationists for Washington County at an award banquet hosted by Minnesota Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts. The annual award is supported by The Farmer magazine.