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Tool box measures success from the ground up

Kit helps track soil quality, wildlife, water, quality of life and finances.

LEWISTON, Minn. -- For Mike and Jennifer Rupprecht, the success of their farming enterprise near Lewiston isn't just based on bushels of corn or pounds of beef produced per acre. It goes much deeper than that.

"Our longer-term goal is to keep building up the land and leave it in better condition than how we found it," said Mike recently. "That starts with the soil."

The Rupprechts believe that how they care for their soil greatly affects not only crop yields, but their ability to meet goals of being good stewards of the land and making a comfortable living. So it was a real eye-opening experience for the farm family when, in 1994, a core sample unearthed a piece of unpleasant history: 48 inches of eroded topsoil lay at the bottom of one of their draws. Would the controlled rotational grazing system and conservation tillage methods the Rupprechts had adapted a few years before prevent such erosion and improve soil quality?

These and other questions prompted the couple to team up with five other like-minded farm families and a group of scientists to create the "Monitoring Project." For the past four years, this initiative, a joint project of the Land Stewardship Project (LSP) and the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture (MISA), has used the expertise of farmers, biologists, economists, sociologists and government agency staff to develop common-sense, user-friendly monitoring techniques.

This project has gained a national reputation within the past year for its unique integration of wildlife watching, soil testing, water analysis, quality of life analysis and tracking of finances to create a well-rounded system for measuring the success of a farm.

The monitoring methods developed by the team are based on the idea that the state of one small aspect of the farm has a ripple effect on all other parts of the operation, said Richard Ness, a staff member in LSP's Lewiston office and coordinator of the Monitoring Project. When taken as a whole, these measurements provide an accurate picture of the real condition of the land and its people.

The Rupprechts, for example, know the presence of worms and other biological activity in their soil says a lot ultimately about their farm's profitability, environmental sustainability and even the family's quality of life.

"We kind of came at it from the soils perspective and then discovered birds and went from there," recalled Mike. "That was exciting."

In hopes of spreading the excitement of whole-farm monitoring to others, the team has developed The Monitoring Tool Box, which is now available to the public. The primary intention of the Tool Box is to provide farm families as well as other rural landowners and residents with a management tool to achieve the goals they set for themselves, their land and their community, said Ness.

It does this by combining a solid scientific foundation with practical, farm-based techniques that can be utilized by anyone in the field. For example, the guide provides a step-by-step description of how to set up stream or bird monitoring stations in a scientifically credible way. But it also gives instructions on how to construct Mike Rupprecht's homemade soil probe in 30 minutes using about $2 worth of materials.

Packaged in a three-ringed binder, this guide was developed in the field by the Monitoring Project over a three-year period and has been tested by crop and livestock farmers from throughout the Midwest. This 115-page guide covers the monitoring of: quality of life, farm sustainability with financial data, birds, frogs, soils and streams. In addition, the Monitoring Team has developed Close to the Ground, a 24-minute companion video that describes how a team approach to monitoring can bring energy and creativity to the process.

"Any business has certain things it keeps track of to make sure it's on target toward success," said Ness. "But when it's a complex enterprise like a farm, management decisions have to be made not only based on the state of the operation's finances, but the health of its ecosystem and the quality of life the people living there enjoy. That requires a monitoring system than takes in the whole picture.

For a copy of The Monitoring Tool Box, the Close to the Ground video and a one-year subscription to a new Close to the Ground newsletter, send $35 ($31.50 for LSP members) to: Land Stewardship Project, P.O. Box 130, Lewiston, MN 55952. Add $7 for shipping and handling. There are discounts for bulk orders. Call (507) 523-3366 for more information, or visit http://www.misa.umn.edu/lsp_toolbox.html.

For more information about the Monitoring Project, email Richard Ness at: rnlspse@rconnect.com

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