On October 26, Organic Valley farmer Loretta Jaus took a quick jaunt to Washington, DC. It was an uncommon trip for this dairy farmer from south-central Minnesota, but so was the occasion. The White House was recognizing Loretta and her husband Martin as one of twelve Champions of Change—a prestigious award for pioneers and leaders in sustainable agricultural production and education. It’s an honor Loretta and her husband Martin have spent several decades earning on their 410-acre organic farm, which they share with 60 cows, a host of amphibians and insects, and thousands of birds.

Loretta and Martin are die-hard naturalists and dedicated community activists. Loretta came to farming with a degree in wildlife biology and a minor in environmental education. Martin was trained in wildlife management. The Jaus property is both a working dairy farm and a wildlife sanctuary set amid large-scale corn and soybean production. “Today, about 60 percent of our farm is in perennial or permanent vegetative cover and will stay green all winter,” reflects Loretta. “Almost 40 of those acres are diverse plantings for wildlife and what we consider fun.”

The Jauses have been members of CROPP Cooperative/Organic Valley since 1997. Loretta currently serves on the boards of Land Stewardship Project and the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture, and she and Martin regularly offer up their farm as a classroom and research site for students—from kindergartners to PhD candidates.

We talked with Loretta about this oasis in the corn and soy jungle, her and Martin’s work to blend wildlife conservation with dairy farming, and how each farmer can make a difference when they embrace the interdependence of the natural world.

Organic Valley farmer Loretta JausLoretta Jaus on the Jaus farm in Gibbon, Minnesota.

Rootstock: How have you integrated conservation into your farm?

Loretta Jaus: We moved in April 1980. That time of year, everything is black and bare, and there are strong winds that pick up the soil. It was clear that erosion was a problem. Right away, we started with tree plantings to slow the wind. We circled the whole farm perimeter with about five miles of tree line. Among the faster-growing ash, cedars, and conifers, we incorporated species that worked well for food and shelter for wildlife: nanking cherries, some crabapples, wild plums. These acres also function as permanent buffer strips from GMO or spray drift, and these same woody plants provide shade and some browse for the cattle.

Next, as something of a tribute to the history of this region, which was originally tall-grass prairie and potholes, we broke the tile line and restored an eleven-acre wetland in an area that typically flooded every spring. [Tile lines are part of tile drainage, a system of below-ground pipes that removes water from soil and into nearby water systems. It’s common in areas with poorly draining soil and credited with making the verdant Midwest arable, while also decimating its wetlands.] The first year was perfect. There were thousands of ducks—multiple varieties in good numbers. After that, there was less water here. The migration route moved west, and we never again saw the skies blackened with waterfowl. Instead, there are deer and an array of Midwestern animals, with the occasional spectacular sighting of birds not common to this area—long-eared owl, short-eared owl, and shrikes, which are famous for piercing rodents on thorns. Now if that doesn’t add some drama to a farmer’s day.

We’ve also put in over 100 bluebird boxes around the pasture. We did it because we like bluebirds and would see a few occasionally migrating. The birds stayed. There was one year when we had 70 active nests. They’re eating insects out in the pasture and eliminating pests for the plants and cows too.

The bluebirds also served a completely unanticipated benefit during one of our worst periods of drought. The grass had shut down. The insects normally living in that grass were gone. [Worried the bluebirds would go hungry,] we opened the boxes to check nests and found the bottoms covered with cherry pits. As the cherries in the buffer strips became unavailable later in the season, we opened boxes to find the bottoms filled with snail shells, pulled from the drying wetland and multiple ponds we’d created. The farm’s biodiversity had saved the bluebirds. They in turn, having demonstrated some pretty creative adaptability to a difficult situation, provided us with encouragement. For lack of feed, we’d had to resort to shipping off cattle. The financial and emotional stress was taking its toll. About at our breaking point, we watched the bluebirds and concluded that if they could figure their way through the drought, then so certainly could we. Off we went with a more hopeful, determined perspective.

Organic Valley Jaus family farmFarm cats wait by the milking parlor.

RS: What changes have you seen on the farm because of your conservation work?

LJ: The one that gets the most attention are the bird populations. We’ve really noticed a difference in the numbers and biodiversity, from a couple dozen species when we moved back to the farm in 1980 to close to 200 documented species either residing for the season, or passing through regularly.

We had an experience a couple of weeks ago that stopped us in our track—I mean, jaws open, “what in the world is going on here?” It’s an exciting time of year because the raptors are gathering to migrate. As you work in the fields, you’ll look very high up, and see tiny dots of hawks riding the currents. A few weeks ago, we walked out the back door after supper going to the milking barn. A broad-winged hawk passed by. We looked up, and there were forty—Marty said fifty—of these hawks lazily circling in the yard, most at treetop level, some lower. They weren’t in hunting mode. We’d never seen anything like this. It was almost as if they stopped in to say “good-bye” before they headed south.

Jaus__0037Biodiversity offers many organisms a home on the Jaus farm.

RS: What was the most fascinating thing you experienced in DC?

LJ: The city, its energy, intrigues me. White House security—and how intricately orchestrated every move is—was both impressive and a little scary. But the most powerful take-away was the story of fellow Champion of Change farmer Herman “Trey” Hill, running 10,000 conventional acres on the Chesapeake Bay. The Bay, which was a significant geographic and economic feature back in the ’70s, was declared an aquatic dead zone. Toxic agricultural run-off was one designated culprit. I was intrigued by Hill’s response [to being accused], “You’re killing the Bay.” Rather than going on the offensive against the environmental groups, he said, “My kids swim in the river just like everyone else’s kids. As a farmer, I realize I am a steward of the land… Let’s sit down together and figure out how to fix this. You tell me how to do better.” He’s formed alliances with ag, environmental, and business interests, and they have driven forward significant change in the Bay. Having experience with similarly challenging ag and water quality issues, Trey’s example provides cause for hope in my state and others.

RS: What can other farmers learn from your experience?

LJ: First, take advantage of growth opportunities wherever you can find them. Patient coaching from a host of caring Organic Valley employees made it possible for me to get comfortable (somewhat) in front of a group to do the educational work that has become my personal mission. Organic Valley events introduced me to some remarkable people who inspired and helped shape my thinking, and took me to places I never thought I’d go. For example, the White House! Wherever a farmer seeks their growth opportunities—from mentors, the Extension service, continuing education courses, clubs—I encourage farmers to learn how to be comfortable sharing your farm’s story.

And second, like Trey Hill, I know that sometimes in the business of running a farm, I’m so intent upon the myriad of fine details that it’s easy to ignore the big picture. But there’s always a price to pay for getting mired in that reductionist mindset—making big problems artificially small. By ignoring the connections between the little boxes we assemble for ourselves, we actually increase the odds of making a poor decision. Remember to think about the connections, and that there are always ways to collaborate and drive positive change.

Where could a farmer start? Study and pledge allegiance to the definition of organic that we as a cooperative have adopted:

Organic is a philosophy and system of production that mirrors the natural laws of living organisms with emphasis on the interdependence of all life.

Inventory your operation for opportunities to put the definition into practice. Start small. Carve out a corner of pollinator habitat. Install a buffer strip or grass waterway to improve the quality of water on your farm. Do something for no reason other than it’s the right thing to do according to the laws of interdependent life. Then step back, watch and wait. Focusing on our ecology [below and above ground] has brought so much richness to being a farmer. The natural resources sustaining my farm are gifted to me; they are not entirely mine. I must also manage for the common good.