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Agroecology Summit continues water discussion from 2009

By Renae B. Vander Schaaf

Date Modified: 09/04/2013 2:02 PM

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WINDOM —Tony Thompson has a deep respect for the land his great-great grandfather, Horace Thompson, settled in the late 1880s.

Thompson is a fan of Joseph N. Nicollet's "The Plains and Prairies'' book.

He was intrigued by the description of the beauty of what Nicollet desribed as "the Undine."

Nicollet was a French scientist who participated in two U.S.-government sponsored expeditions in 1838 and 1839. Later when Nicollet published maps of the southwest Minnesota region he made reference to a portage from Fish Lake (known to the Lakota as Tehan sheteka) from the Des Moines River. The journals provide Thompson with a glimpse of how his farm's landscape once appeared.

Thompson routinely opens his farm for neighborhood gatherings and to discuss agricultural and ecological issues. Bruce Maxwell, then an agronomy professor at the University of Minnesota, visited with students during one of these gatherings. He and Thompson then decided to make this a regular event.

They call it the Willow Lake Farm Agroecology Summit with a promise not to take themselves too seriously and to keep the event open, friendly and informal even when challenging topics are discussed.

Since then, a biennial summit has taken place, always in odd years. This year's conversation continued the theme that began in 2009, when they followed a drop of water through time.

The discussion continued on Aug. 16-18 with Charles E. Umbanhowar, Jr., professor of Biology and Environmental Studies at St. Olaf College in Northfield and Neil Linscheid, Extension educator for the Center for Community Vitality for Extension.

Linschied said that demographic evidence reveals that rural Minnesota is experiencing a 'brain gain' rather than a 'brain drain' through the immigration of people with families, education and skills. Discussions of who and what is required to make a community demographically attractive enough for families to stay followed. An Ethiopian meal was served by Asafash Haile, of Queen Sheba restaurant in Worthington.

Barn dances were held Friday and Saturday, bonfires, strolls around the lake, agricultural tours, prairie/wetland tours and a chance to play Bobble Ball — a game unique to the Thompson family — were held.

Thompson has used ridge-till practices on his farm since 1990. Initially, it was for weed control and containing production costs. Since then, weed control has become much easier with new crop genetics, but ridge-till remains a viable method if it can be scaled to meet the needs of a family in 2014, he said.

Surrounded by wetlands, Thompson strives to send the best quality water downstream. Tile intakes have been closed. Four years ago he installed a wood chip bioreactor.

Fertilizer is applied with precision, some land is in the continuous Conservation Reserve Program and filter strips surround the wetlands.

"The land here is indisputably very productive," said Thompson. "It is an agricultural landscape, but this should not limit us from believing that we can also have energy production, recreation, beauty and a functioning and biodiverse native ecosystem."

He recalls a statement made by Joseph N. Nicollet, circa 1835.

"He will triumph who understands how to conciliate and combine with the greatest skill the benefits of the past with the demands of the future."