Habitat & Conservation  |  05/11/2021

Profiles in Sustainability


Three Pioneers Uniting Agriculture and Conservation

By Greg Breining

Pheasants thrive where natural habitat mixes with grain fields and row crops. Such a mosaic provides our favorite gamebird with places to hide year round, cover in which to nest and rear young in spring and summer, and high-energy food to eat. 

As fields have grown in size over the last few decades, the balance has tipped away from habitat. But there is a new mindset afoot.

Many farmers and producers, along with advisers and leaders in agricultural industries, are championing the idea of incorporating grassland and other native upland and wetland habitat back into farming operations. The growth of precision agriculture technology that identifies unprofitable acres, in combination with government and nonprofit conservation programs, is allowing some farmland to become more profitable for the producer, putting unproductive acres into wildlife habitat that pays a dividend in cash, and improving soil and water quality while aiding carbon sequestration. 

A true win-win-win. Beginning with this issue and continuing in Summer and Fall, we’ll be showcasing some of the pioneers who are championing these efforts and making a difference for farm profitability, pheasants and the environment.

As product specialist manager at RDO Equipment Co. in Fargo, North Dakota, Joel Kaczynski sits where the rubber meets the road as farmers adopt the technology of precision agriculture. 

RDO sells the software and hardware guided by GPS and linked by cellular networks that enables tractors to drive in straighter rows, planters to drop seed and sprayers to apply pesticides without overlap … all while allowing farmers to calculate yield and profit down to the acre the moment the harvest is complete.

The technology helps a farmer reduce the cost of fertilizer and other inputs and run a more profitable operation. “He can put on what he needs where he needs to put that on,” says Kaczynski. “If you’re documenting everything, you know down to a specific area of the field what you put for inputs into that area and what your revenue is out of there too.”

That means precision ag technology companies like RDO sell benefits conservation too. Precision ag reduces the runoff of excess fertilizer into waterways and the drift of unwanted spray into conservation plantings. Year-by-year documentation of costs and yields enables farmers to identify unproductive acres that are more profitably put into the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) or other conservation programs.

“You can’t look at one year,” says Kaczynski. “You can see multiple years what it’s doing.”

Most farmers probably haven’t invested enough in precision ag technology to make such granular assessments of their land and farming practices. “We’re more at the foundational level of that yet,” says Kaczynski. But in the next few years, the technology will begin paying dividends for farming and conservation.

Kaczynski, a new Pheasants Forever member, has always had an abiding interest in agriculture and conservation. He grew up on a beef, hog and chicken farm in southeastern North Dakota. Both sides of his family farmed. “Agriculture is always in my blood,” he says. He has also always embraced computers and technology. 

Pheasant hunting forged his personal tie to wildlife and conservation. “My dad wasn’t into pheasant hunting, but we went down to the local International Harvester dealer, which also sold guns, and he bought my brother and me a Mossberg shotgun. And we shared that over the years growing up.”

Kaczynski now shares his love of farming and pheasants in the job he does every day.

Bill Gordon, a farmer in southwestern Minnesota and president of the American Soybean Association (ASA), is bullish on the intersection of conservation and agriculture. 

As a fourth-generation farmer raising corn and soybeans on 2,000 acres near Worthington, he’s excited about the potential of precision ag technology. Not only does it have the potential to make more efficient use of fertilizer and pesticides and save money, but it also can protect wildlife habitat and water quality. 

The documentation of costs and yields that comes from precision ag technology “allows me to take my best ground and get the most production out of it to be profitable,” says Gordon. “Then I can conserve that other part of that ground that isn’t very productive, and leave it in CRP or other wildlife habitat. I’m going to pattern-tile my farm up here where it’s productive ground, but I’m going to empty my tiles in that basin I used to farm. It was always wet anyways. Now I’ve created habitat, and I’ve also created a natural environmental filter so that my water is filtered out before it goes into the creek.”

On his own farm, Gordon keeps about 300 acres in CRP, buffer strips and other conservation land.

As president of ASA, Gordon says the organization offers farmers training and education in reducing the carbon footprint of row crop agriculture and increasing the sequestration of carbon in soil to blunt climate change. ASA has a conservation action team, and has created a sustainability protocol incorporating state and federal standards to ensure that soybeans sold overseas meet environmental standards. “We understand that sustainability is key to agriculture,” says Gordon. “Farmers are willing to voluntarily improve when they are shown the path that if we do X, Y and Z, we actually have the ability to make you more profitable and we’re also helping the environment.”

Gordon, a premium sponsor at the Nobles County PF banquet, has been aware of the conservation role of farmers since he hunted pheasants as a farm kid. “My dad graduated from the University of Minnesota with a biology degree,” he says. “He’s always been in touch with that natural side and taught me that, hey, we’re hunters, we’re fishermen, we’re outdoorsmen, but we’re conservationists. You’ve got to look at how do we produce the most off that land, and also make it better for tomorrow. Ever since I’ve been a kid, I haven’t known any different.”

Steve Robisky, a long-time John Deere manager and self-described “extreme pheasant hunter” who began carrying a BB gun through fields when he was six, was strolling the floor of National Pheasant Fest and Quail Classic a few years ago. He remembers seeing booths for Deere competitors that had struck sponsorship deals with Pheasants Forever. 

“Quite honestly it upset me,” says Robisky. He wondered why Pheasants Forever was promoting smaller players in the agricultural implement sphere “when clearly the industry’s leader from the biggest of big all the way down to small tractors is the company I work for?”

He called Pheasants Forever National from his Waterloo, Iowa, office to complain. “Honestly,” says Robisky, “the answer I got was, Well, we have made a couple of attempts but the reality is we just don’t know anybody.”

That changed. Robisky began calling Deere executives from the CEO down. “I got some Deere people and some PF people on the phone,” he says. “I gave a phone introduction, and at the end of the day, the folks at PF took over and drove it.”

The result was a three-year sponsorship program, launched in November 2018, naming John Deere The Official Habitat Tractor for Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever. The program creates goodwill and advertising for Deere with tens of thousands of potential buyers of equipment, from riding mowers to half-million-dollar tractors.

In return, John Deere sponsors a national Precision Farmer of the Year Award presented during Pheasant Fest. Through the John Deere rewards program, PF and QF members can buy new John Deere equipment at a discount.

Robisky, recently retired from Deere, breeds German shorthaired pointers as Northfork Kennels. He’s now habitat chair for the Black Hawk County chapter of Pheasants Forever and has a second career custom-planting several hundred acres of native forbs and grasses each year. 

“About four or five years ago I bought a small native seed drill to plant food plots for myself. Somebody called out of the blue and said, “I hear you have one of those drills. Can you plant five acres for me?’ So that’s how it all got started.”

Greg Breining wanders pheasant country with his English field-bred cocker Roscoe each fall, looking for roosters on the pheasant-friendly fringes of farmland.

This story originally appeared in the 2021 Spring Issue of the Pheasants Forever Journal. If you enjoyed it and would like to be the first to read more great upland content like this, become a Pheasants Forever member today!