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Northern Indiana is a conservation Mecca. The Fish Creek basin there has the greatest concentration of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres in the Eastern Corn Belt and the most biologically diverse stream in the United States. Coincidence?

Probably not, says Larry Clemens, Fish Creek project manager for The Nature Conservancy (TNC), a private, nonprofit organization. Since 1992, Clemens has coordinated watershed activities with row-crop farmers in the Fish Creek basin. The project now encompasses 335,000 acres and is in its first of five years to measure the economic and water-quality impacts of conservation practices.

"We are lucky to work with leaders in agricultural conservation that see the benefits of conservation tillage and buffer strips," Clemens says. "We have found that once farmers learn about our goals for Fish Creek, they feel a responsibility to get involved where they can."

That includes Wayne and Wandalee Cosper, retired farmers and landowners from Hamilton, Ind., whose ground is located in the Fish Creek basin. Wayne is a member of the Fish Creek Advisory Board.

"I've always been conservation-minded and a wildlife enthusiast, so when I was approached by The Nature Conservancy to help preserve Fish Creek, I wanted to get involved," says Cosper. "It's a nice change of pace to not always work with just government agencies," he says.

Fish Creek, which cuts across one of Cosper's farms, is 30 miles long and winds through the upper watershed of the Maumee and St. Joseph rivers from northern Indiana to Ohio. As its name implies, it is home to 42 fish species, and 31 freshwater mussel species, including three mussels on the federal endangered species list. One species, the white cat's paw pearly mussel, is no longer found anywhere in the world but Fish Creek.

"Over time, sedimentation smothers the mussels," says Cosper. "But farming has changed dramatically from intense tillage to no-till since I started in 1939, and that has helped eliminate some of that sedimentation. Farmers recognize their fields don't have to look like gardens anymore to produce high yields, and the residue left on no-till fields means less impact on the environment."

Clemens helped Cosper and other producers realize the benefits of reduced sedimentation by showing them the advantages of various conservation strategies. With TNC's assistance, farmers in the three-county watershed have used cost-share programs to restore wetlands, reforest the river corridor, install waterways and filter strips and purchase no-till equipment. Clemens says 30 pieces of no-till equipment have been put into service in the region with TNC's assistance, and no-till practices have risen to include more than 50 percent of the regionís tillable area.

"I think part of the reason conservation practices have been slow to catch on is primarily because it takes a whole different set of equipment," says Cosper. "But with no-till equipment, we only till the top 2 or 3 inches, which improves our yield, profits and the environment."

In addition to the switch to no-till, Cosper built ponds on his property to protect water quality from runoff. Since no-till practices were implemented, he says the water appears less muddy due to less runoff. In addition, trees and other vegetation added along Fish Creekís banks catch more of the silt before it gets to the creek itself.

"Government programs have taken a lot of land out of production and put it into grass and trees in this area. Conventional tillage is also more rare," observes Cosper. "While we don't really use the word 'sustainable' to describe what we do, I will say that a lot of the farmers and landowners here that are older are more involved now with taking care of the land. We don't farm it as hard."

In total, Clemens says some 55 landowners, farmers, municipalities and fire departments are now involved in the preservation of Fish Creek as cooperators. More than 10,000 feet of fence keep livestock out of Fish Creek, and 300 acres of bottomland along the banks have been reforested. This past year, Clemens took baseline water-quality readings as part of a project supported by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation. He hopes the findings over the next few years can provide additional insight into helping farmers improve profits and provide them with sound data that can influence environmental legislation in the future. AM


Barb Baylor Anderson is a free-lance writer based in Edwardsville, Ill.


Do you know of other unique examples of environmental stewardship or sustainability at work? We are interested in producer success stories as well as company efforts that address sustainability. FAX them to Agri Marketing at 314/569-1083 or e-mail

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