Carol Abrahamzon is executive director of the Mississippi Valley Conservancy, a regional non-profit land trust based in La Crosse, WI. With over a decade of experience in non-profit management as well as a first-hand knowledge of responsible land stewardship and conservation, Carol says that the line between work and home often blurs for her—and that’s the way she likes it. She and her husband Bill own a sustainable farm in southeast Minnesota where they grow beef, pork, chicken and most of their own fruits and vegetables.
The Mississippi Valley Conservancy began humbly, as a group of concerned citizens holding evening meetings on each other’s porches. “They saw the importance of the beauty of this area and the rare habitats of this area” says Carol, explaining that this group wanted to protect the Mississippi Valley, and its unique flora and fauna, from development and industrialization. These first informal meetings were held in 1995, and by 1997 The Mississippi Valley Conservancy was an official entity. Today, the organization works on projects related not only to land conservation, but also land management, education and outreach.
Currently, Carol explains, “one of our biggest threats [to the land in the Mississippi Valley area] is frack sand mining, and we have a number of farmers who we’ve helped out so that their land can never be mined. The neat thing about what we do is that it’s not temporary, it’s not a 10 year program or a 20 year program, it’s forever.”
The permanence of the Mississippi Land Conservancy’s work is crucial for future generations. “We have a lot of people to feed now and down the road we have a lot more people to feed and it’s going to be very very important that we continue to conserve the ag[ricultural] land, otherwise how are we going to eat?” asks Carol.
Hopefully, efforts like those of the Mississippi Land Conservancy will prevent us from ever having to answer to that question.
Transcript: Rootstock Radio Interview with Carol Abrahamzon
Air date: October 5, 2015
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, listeners. My special guest today is Carol Abrahamzon, who is the executive director of the nonprofit Mississippi Valley Conservancy. The Conservancy is responsible for protecting more than 16,000 acres of land and waterways in southwestern Wisconsin. Founded in 1997, they have done a tremendous job bringing awareness of the value of conservation to Wisconsin and the world. Please help me welcome Carol Abrahamzon.
TM: Always wonderful to be interviewing people with a passion and who are activists for the things that they really believe in. And Carol, I know you’re one of those people, so I really appreciate you being here.
And I know that you are a person of many hats. Besides someone who is deeply involved in helping preserve land in a land trust through the Conservancy, you’re also a food lover and also a farmer. So that’s pretty excellent, to be coming at conservancies from that point of view. Tell us a little bit about your farm.
CAROL ABRAHAMZON: Well, my husband and I have a farm. We’re actually in Minnesota, just across the river, on a ridgetop. It’s a hundred acres; about half of it is woods, and then we have rotational grazing. So it’s a small cow/calf operation. We have about twenty-five cows and their calves at any given time of the year. We also will feed out a few steers, and I raise four pigs and a hundred chickens. And that is my contribution to helping to feed the world. So we do, on a very small scale, have local customers who appreciate that.
I had a friend who visited our farm for a weekend a couple of weeks ago, and at the end she exclaimed, “You know, I love coming to your farm because it’s so filled with love.” You know, my pigs come and they want to be scratched, and they roll over and they bare their bellies so that I’ll give them a good belly rub. And that’s just kind of the way that we raise—that’s our philosophy in raising animals.
TM: And a farm is such a place where you have to get practical, and you are practical, and you deal with life and death in just a very practical and probably very functional way.
CA: You know, and the neat thing is, of course, our children were raised on the farm. They were in 4-H. They would be grooming their cattle 365 days a year, and then they would have to sell them, and they knew what that meant. And there would be one that would go into the freezer, and they knew what that meant. And many times at dinner we would—all of our animals have names, and so we literally would give thanks to whoever happened to be on our plate. But oftentimes you will see that I will thank Petunia for the pork chops that we have that evening, and I truly feel blessed to have the opportunity to be a steward of not just our land but also a steward of our animals. And my husband and I fully believe that we are just caretakers. We don’t really own that land. And there will be a day when we will move on and somebody else will be there to take care of that land.
TM: That is so beautiful. And I’m assuming that you’re teaching that through the Conservancy as well. You’re helping people understand just how they can contribute in such a lovely way to the kind of natural beauty that rejuvenates all of us.
CA: Well, the neat thing about what I do both at home and at work is it comes full circle. There is no really “Oh, I’m going to work now,” and “I’m coming home now,” because everything that I do is connected. And I like that. And I know people think, “Oh, but you never leave your work!” Well, you know, I might be sitting at my desk thinking about something that has to be done at home, and I might be at home thinking about something that has to be done at work. But they’re so important and they’re so intertwined.
And the folks that we work with, it isn’t even that I have to teach them, because it’s there. It’s the values that they have. And that’s the reason that they come to us and they say, “I really value this land that I have spent my lifetime making changes to and improving,” whether it’s creating a prairie that was there hundreds of years ago but is no longer, or restoring an oak savannah, or a farm that they want to always make sure it’s a farm, that it’s always a place that produces food for us to eat. And so they come to us, and they say, “Can you help us make this happen?” And that’s what we do. We are really there just to help them make their dreams come true.
TM: I think the Conservancy is so fortunate to have you as their executive director. But I also am very impressed with just how rounded you are and all the things that you’ve done. And so I’d love to hear… You started talking about how you see what you do on your farm translating to the Conservancy. Tell us a little bit about your work with the Conservancy.
CA: Well, we work in a number of areas. Originally, when the Conservancy was founded in 1997, there were a handful of folks who literally sat on somebody’s back porch and looked at the bluffs and said, “Wow, we need to do something—we don’t want to see these bluffs developed, we don’t want to see them changed. We want to have this view-shed a hundred, a thousand years from now. What can we do?”
And they actually went to the Nature Conservancy first, and the Nature Conservancy said, “That is just wonderful, and we give you all the kudos in the world for wanting to do that. Now go out and do it. But we don’t have any money to support you, and so you’re going to have to do it on your own.” And that’s what these people did. You know, these are our founding members, and they saw the importance of the beauty of this area but also the rare habitats in this area. And that was really the focus in the beginning of the Conservancy.
And then as time progressed, people learned more about what we did. There were some donations of land to put together the La Crosse River Conservancy, which is just a beautiful mass of wetlands—so important, not only to habitat but to clean water, as it filters all of the runoff that we get from all of the paved areas that we have. And then, not that many years ago, we started looking at more and more agricultural land and working more and more with farmers who were interested in, again, “Oh, I’ve worked my whole life on this farm, and I don’t want somebody to come along and say, ‘Hey, I’ll give you a little extra money and we’ll put up a strip mall, or we’ll turn this into a golf course,’ or whatever kind of development.” And of course, now one of our biggest threats is frac sand mining, and we have a number of farmers who we’ve helped out so that their land can never be mined.
And that’s, the neat thing about what we do is it’s not temporary—it’s not a ten-year program or a twenty-year program. It’s forever. And we really stress that with people, with everybody that supports us and wonders about the work that we do and why it’s so important. It is because it’s forever.
TM: So forever keeping beautiful wild places in some kind of conservation seems like such a wonderful thing to do. It must be very satisfying for you to do that. And you know, as you talk about working with farmers, how lucky that you’re a farmer as well, so I’m sure that you are able to understand and talk with farmers in a way that they can understand what you’re doing, and probably model that for them. I myself am reminded, and it’s good for our listeners to know this, that seventy percent of our fresh water, for example, is used in agriculture. So I’m very excited and intrigued that you’re able to get some of the farming community to put some of their land in conservation.
I see here that you have 16,000 acres now, 16,200 acres that you’ve been able to put in conservation. How does that break down?
CA: We have about, it’s over 10,000 acres that have some productive agricultural land on it. So they may be like me: you know, about fifty percent of our farm is forest and then we have our pastures that we rotationally graze. That’s our agricultural land. So, while we don’t have a breakdown of the exact acres on each farm, we know that 10,000 acres of the lands that we’ve helped preserve have agricultural land on them. And those are all in private ownership. So that’s the exciting thing, because we have a lot of people to feed now, and down the road we have a lot more people to feed, and it’s going to be very, very important that we continue to conserve the ag land. Otherwise, how are we going to eat?
TM: The Mississippi River is such an incredibly important river for all of the United States. And it impacts so many states, and it’s such a huge region. But I’m assuming you don’t work in all of the whole Mississippi watershed, do you?
CA: No, we don’t. That would be quite a daunting task. We do have nine counties that we cover along western Wisconsin, so most of them… Well, they’re all in the Mississippi watershed. So some of our focus areas are on tributaries into the Mississippi. In fact, right now we have a project going on that has been funded by the McKnight Foundation, and they are focused, one of their areas of focus is the Mississippi River.
And so we are working on the Kickapoo River, where we have contacted well over 1,600 farmers, initially in mailings, and then we have sent them follow-up information if they’ve requested it. And it’s really an outreach program that leads to permanent protection. So we talk to the farmers—again, if they’re interested; we’re not trying to force anybody into anything. But if they want to learn about how they can have more sustainable ag practices, especially along the rivers and the riverbanks… You know, it can be something as simple as just putting in a buffer strip rather than having row crops right up to that stream bank.
And there are resources available, so part of what we do is to help match these landowners up with the resources, both financial resources as well as informational. We have some rotational grazing experts; we work with the Kickapoo Grazing Initiative. They’ll come in and write grazing plans for folks in this project area. We work with Valley Stewardship Network, and they will do water quality testing for us on this project. And it’s been just amazing. We’ve had pasture walks where people can see some of the demonstration sites, where it may seem like a daunting task to make some of these changes, but when you can go and see, on somebody else’s property, that it really wasn’t that difficult and it didn’t take that long and it wasn’t that expensive, and here are some resources that can help you make those changes. And people are very interested in that.
The other part of this program that we’re really excited about is we are focusing on women landowners. And many women become landowners simply because their husband has passed away. And so now, they’ve probably had little to no involvement in this farm, and all of a sudden it’s theirs. And you have the neighbor who says, “Now, don’t you worry, I’ll take care of things,” and he leases the ground and all of a sudden this woman landowner isn’t very happy with what’s happening on her land. But she needs to be empowered by having the educational resources that she can go to, and those folks can help her explain to the person who might be leasing her land that, “You know what, this is my land and this is how I want you to take care of it.” And just being able to have that conversation often is the game changer.
TM: That is so exciting and wonderful to hear, because we see that all over, in every area, not just farming, where women don’t feel that they can speak up. But yet they do have feelings, they do see things, and they have ideas. How large is your women’s program? Are you finding that these workshops are well attended?
CA: Yes, we are getting thirty-plus women. And again, they’re older women. They’re sixty, seventy-plus years old. So for them this is a big step. But we are having good attendance, really good questions too. You can just see that throughout the course of the workshop, as they learn. And it’s not just to tell them, “This is what you should do,” but it’s to show them. So we have demonstrations of what happens when you have compacted soil as opposed to not; different practices that can keep your soil from being compacted. And then now you can go and talk to whoever’s leasing your land and help them to understand that this is why it’s important.
TM: You know, you mentioned that there are resources available. We all know that farmers don’t really… I mean, they would probably prefer to even actually plant buffers. But you know, for example, forty percent of the corn in the Midwest now, right in this very watershed that we’re talking about, goes to corn ethanol, with very generous subsidies. So it’s hard for them to turn down that space. It might be worth a couple thousand dollars to plant corn all the way to the stream. When you talk about resources, are any of the resources compensation to help farmers make up for the lost income that they might get if they do plant buffer strips?
CA: Yes, there are definitely financial resources. A lot of them are through the county and our CS offices. There are different programs, depending on where you’re at and what you qualify for, and what you want to do. So they might be able to help you cost-share on fencing or putting in the buffer strips, or putting in something like permanent rotational grazing. Hay—it can be a great filter, and that is also still a cash crop for you. So those kinds of resources can help with not just the advice but also financially. And there are cost shares—sometimes they’re fifty percent, sometimes they’re seventy-five percent; it just depends on what you want to do. Sometimes even stream bank repair that they can help with.
TM: You know, I’ve read that the Endangered Species Act is very, very important with the work that you’re doing. Can you talk a little bit about that and why it’s important in the work that you do?
CA: Well, it is really important. I think that we’ve all seen perfect examples of why it’s so important. You know, for a while wolves were listed, and then all of a sudden they were delisted. And then there have been hunts, and I know right here in Wisconsin it’s been very difficult to manage. And so there are concerns—okay, we’ve had these hunts, and now, before we even know it, they’re past the numbers that they’re supposed to be, and then do we put them back on the list? And it’s this back-and-forth, and it’s very important. That’s just one example of what can happen when they’re delisted.
But the other thing is, if we have the list, it’s not just that we have this law that protects, but it gets people to thinking about what they as an individual can do. And that’s what we all want—we want to be able to do something that can help, whatever needs help. It does not matter—it might be a small child, it might be an adult in another country, but it also might be a bird or a butterfly or a plant species that is threatened and going away forever. And we know that there are species that in our lifetime disappear, and once they’re gone you cannot bring them back. So that’s why it’s so very important.
TM: Well, in our lifetime, this very second that we’re breathing, we’re losing species. And I forget how many a minute we’re losing, but it’s a terrifying number. What other kinds of properties are you finding? And are you being able to raise the money that you need to either purchase these pieces of property? And what are you looking for?
CA: Well, we are lucky here in Wisconsin. There was a great threat in the governor’s proposed budget to remove the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund. Land trusts depend on that fund.
TM: What fund was that again? Say that again.
CA: It’s the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund.
TM: Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund.
CA: Mm-hmm, and it has, in the past, been very bipartisan. Knowles and Nelson were two governors; one was a Republican and one was a Democrat, and they started the fund and the whole concept of having this money available to purchase land in Wisconsin—you know, land trusts. And municipalities can use it as well. That was threatened in the governor’s proposed budget. Now, luckily, money was reintroduced and approved so we do still have some of those funds. They decrease every budget cycle, and that is very much a concern. But right now we have them.
And we, Mississippi Valley Conservancy, depend on those funds. They will cover fifty percent of the appraised value of a property. So for instance, in June, we have a property called Sugar Creek Bluff State Natural Area. And it was, oh, I believe 240 acres. And the property right adjacent to it, the family who owned it and who had over the years sold us the original property, they were selling the last parcels. And when an opportunity like that comes along, if you don’t have funding in place, the family is looking to just sell to whoever will buy it. And so we were very fortunate to have the cost-share with the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund, other organizations that provided grant money, and then our wonderful, wonderful individual donors and supporters who stepped up and filled in the gaps.
So that’s how we acquire land. And it is not our main mission to own land, and a lot of times we will own it and then transfer the ownership once it’s been conserved, so that it’s protected. But this natural area, it’s very important in the habitat that’s there, and it’s on Sugar Creek, which is really great too. There’s a goat prairie on it. It’s also—so now there’s 400-plus acres—it’s open to the public, and it’s open for hunting.
Now, hunting is a heritage of Wisconsin, and there are a lot of people who want to pass that down to their children and grandchildren, but land is becoming tougher and tougher to find. So that is one of the things that we can offer on some of our properties. Property that’s been purchased with the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund is always open to the public. So we have trails. People who like to bird, photograph nature, can go there, just regular old hiking. If you just want to go and get away in a nice, quiet, peaceful chunk of woods, for both your physical and your mental health, which is so important, or if you want to go fishing, or if you want to hunting, we make those properties available. And this is a pretty busy time of the year around our office because we get a lot of calls from people who want to know where they can hunt.
TM: It’s turkey season now, isn’t it?
CA: And it’s bow season, I believe, is about to open, maybe this weekend, yeah.
TM: That’s excellent, that these lands are open to the public. I’m assuming that you also have some good rules and regulations that people have to follow when they go onto these lands.
CA: Yeah, and anytime there’s a property that’s within a particular zone or a county or a city, those regulations apply. And so people always have to call and check and see whatever the area is zoned for.
And I didn’t mention any winter activities, which of course our lands are open year-round. Snowshoeing is a big activity, and we will provide some guided snowshoe hikes. And that is a recreation that some people have not been introduced to. And we have had a grant in place to help us buy some snowshoes so we can provide those for folks who have never done it before and just want to try it out. We work with Redfeather, who locally they make snowshoes, and so they’ll come and set up and they’ll teach people how to use them and how to fit the right size for them. They’re just really a helpful partner to us, as we have so many helpful partners in everything that we do. But also cross-country skiing is another thing that’s done in the winter on our properties.
TM: That’s really fantastic. Where can people get information about the different properties and where you can snowshoe and cross-country ski on these Mississippi Valley conservation trails?
CA: Yeah, just going to our website, which is www.MississippiValleyConservancy, all spelled out, .org. And then we have a tab that says “Nature Preserves.” [NOTE: you have to click on either “Land Conservation” or “Recreation Land” first before “Nature Preserves” shows up as an option.]] And each one of them, you can click on, we have a trail brochure, so it shows you where the trails are, where you can park. It’ll tell you a little bit about the history of that land, whether it was donated or how and why it was acquired; what are the species on there that you might see. And there’s kind of a fun little checklist, I call it a scavenger hunt, if you have kids, and there’s little boxes next to both plants and animals that you might see. So you can send the kids off and see who can find this and that and the other thing, and that’s really fun too. But all of that information is on our website, all of the lands that are open to the public.
TM: Well, I love to cross-country ski, so I can hardly wait. I’m going to look it up. And maybe I’ve actually been on some of these pieces of property and didn’t even know it. You know, one of the things that I’m curious about is we humans are benefitting—I can see how we are—from this land that’s going into conservancy. How do you think it benefits the river?
CA: Well, working within the watersheds, which are our priority areas, definitely benefits the river. I mean, we are just as on-point as McKnight is with we need to do something upstream to alleviate the problems that are downstream. So we feel like we are doing our part here in this area in working with landowners.
A lot of times there are landowners who, they come to us and they have some land management issues, and we can help. We can give them some advice—you know, this is how you can restore a wetland area, or this is how you can restore a streambank, or just a management practice here or there that will make a difference with these watersheds into the Mississippi.
I think most folks are aware, but if you’re not, the Mississippi is such an important migratory flyway. In fact, right now we are at the peak of fall migration. So I was at a presentation last night where a gentleman, Craig Thompson, who, he knows birds like the back of his hand, and he said, “While we were sleeping last night, a hundred thousand birds came flying down the Mississippi on their way south.” And you know, even to think about that is almost impossible. So the Mississippi is really important for that migration.
TM: And if you’re a listener out there, Carol, tell us how they would reach you, the Conservancy.
CA: Yeah, if you go to our website, which is www.MississippiValleyConservancy.org, there is a place where you can contact us through email. And then also there is a place that gives our phone number, which is 608-784-3606.
TM: I’m assuming these kinds of programs—you said that there was an alliance—are going on all over the United States.
CA: They are, from coast to coast. And land trusts really did start on the east coast. The property mass there compared to the population is very much skewed, and so people realized early on that if we don’t start conserving some of this property, it’s just going to be wall-to-wall people and there won’t be any green spaces. So that’s kind of where the movement started. And of course, California, very important there as well, and just sort of grew into all over. So yes, there are land trusts everywhere.
They don’t all do the same thing; some of them have different focus areas and different missions. Many of them don’t do land management, which we do because we feel it’s really important that if we’re going to acquire land, that we also manage it; that if it needs restoration, that we work toward that restoration. You know, if there was at one time a wonderful goat prairie and now it’s all grown up with cedar, you’re not really protecting the habitat because the habitat’s not there. So we work to get grants and we work with our volunteers to go in and help us do the restoration, the land management. And we have a full-time land manager as well.
TM: And if there are people out there, of course, who want to volunteer and/or want to gift maybe part of their farm or their land and/or dollars, I’m assuming that you’re always welcome and eager to accept all of those things.
CA: Yes, we are. We do need volunteers—we have a lot of work to do and everybody’s really busy. And you know, volunteering can be anything from coming into the office and helping us fold letters and get a mailing out, to being out in the field and cutting brush, or prescribed burns—if you have any experience in that, we need help with that. So there are a lot of different opportunities for any skill set and for any interest area that you have.
Yes, we absolutely depend on our financial donors. We absolutely could not do it without them. We do get some grants, but the majority of our support comes from the individuals who donate to us. So I encourage everybody to just go onto our website, MississippiValleyConservancy.org, and there’s a “Donate” button that you can click on. But even just to learn more about what we do, feel free to contact me. I’m more than happy to talk with anybody who’s interested.
TM: That’s so excellent. Carol, is there some program or some activity that you haven’t covered that you really want to make sure that we hear about?
CA: Yeah, I guess what I would like to leave your listeners with is, if you are interested in protecting your land, please do contact us. We have a variety of methods in which we can work with you. You may be interested in simply donating it; people do that. But likely that you’ll want to continue to live and work on your land as you always have, and we can work with you on just simply protecting it so that you know, when you either sell it or when you pass it on to your children or when you pass, that all the work that you’ve done for your property will remain.
TM: Carol, thank you so much. And listeners, we have been speaking with Carol Abrahamzon, who is the executive director of the nonprofit Mississippi Valley Conservancy. That means if you make a donation, it’s tax deductible. And Carol, thank you and everyone in the Conservancy for all that you do. It just is a wonderful model for all of us, and I just can’t thank you enough.
CA: Well, thank you. It is truly my pleasure.
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