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VIEWPOINT: Outstanding conservation starts wtih two llamas and a prairie

"For our 25th anniversary — the silver anniversary — we got a doe with silver ears and two baby goats."

Becky Vierling smiles as she talks about the small farm in Denmark Township that she and her husband, Philip, bought in 2003.

When the Vierlings took on a more than 100-year-old farm house with 10 acres of land, they agreed to start slow and just enjoy living in the country, closer to nature. By the end of their first year, however, they had chickens, a small herd of goats, and two llamas.

"We actually got the llamas to protect the goats from coyotes," Philip said.

Apparently the wooly animals serve well as guard dogs.

Shortly after moving to the farm, the Vierlings also scheduled a site visit with the Washington Conservation District to learn more about the trees on their property and what they could do to care for the land.

Thirteen years later, they have planted trees to create windbreaks along the road and edges of the pasture, converted two acres of cultivated land to native prairie, and even convinced three of their neighbors to plant prairie as well. In addition to their conservation efforts, the Vierlings have lovingly restored the farmhouse and barns, using recycled timber for a pasture fence and installing the original bell from a Woodbury school near the barn.

"We want to honor what Minnesota used to be like," Becky said. "Our goal is to steward the land and respect the heritage of this farm."

Five years ago, the Conservation District contacted Philip while working on a project to protect Trout Brook, a nearby stream that flows through Afton State Park to the St. Croix River. The district was looking for opportunities to install grassed waterways and sediment basins to reduce runoff pollution from farms, and they had grant funding available from both the St. Croix River Association and South Washington Watershed District. Though the Vierlings' property wasn't a good fit for that project, they were interested in doing something on their land to improve habitat and protect Trout Brook. Eventually, new grant funds came along — this time to convert turf and cultivated farmland to native prairie. The Vierlings jumped at the opportunity.

With help from the Conservation District and a local company called Prairie Restorations, the Vierlings eventually planted two acres of their land in prairie, a change that will keep 1.6 pounds of phosphorus and 7.89 pounds of nitrogen out of Trout Brook each year. The prairie will also soak more rainwater into the ground so that there is less runoff to erode the fragile streambanks. Most people would have been content to stop there, but Philip is the type of person who snow blows 11 driveways and helps two sets of elderly neighbors take care of their land. He really wanted to see his conservation efforts reach beyond the edges of their property, so he convinced three neighbors to plant prairie as well, resulting in a total of 8 acres of prairie between the four households.

For the Vierlings, owning a farm has been an opportunity not just to connect with nature, but also to nurture connections with friends, family, and people in their community. When they sell one of the goats, they donate the proceeds to help youth from their church go on mission trips. Philip himself has traveled to Estonia, Latvia, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, in addition to hosting people from those countries at their home here in Minnesota. Pulling into the driveway today, you can see the flags from those countries waving as a welcome to faraway visitors. The couple has also nurtured a relationship with a small group of Sudanese refugees; for the past 10 years, Philip and his neighbor have cleared and tilled a small plot of land between their properties for the women to grow beans and vegetables each summer.

Last month, the Washington Conservation District board selected Philip and Becky Vierling as their Outstanding Conservationists for 2015 in recognition of their efforts to protect Trout Brook and improve wildlife habitat on their farm, as well as their success in engaging neighbors in conservation projects.

According to Philip, he and Becky try to live by a few key principles: "Be a good steward. Live a life of gratitude. Appreciate the simple things in life."

Angie Hong is an educator for East Metro Water - mnwcd.org/emwrep - which includes Brown's Creek, Carnelian Marine-St. Croix, Comfort Lake-Forest Lake, Middle St. Croix, Ramsey Washington-Metro, Rice Creek, South Washington and Valley Branch Watersheds, Cottage Grove, Dellwood, Forest Lake, Grant, Lake Elmo, Newport, Stillwater, West Lakeland, Willernie and Woodbury, Washington County and the Washington Conservation District. Contact her at 651-330-8220, extension 35, or angie.hong@mnwcd.org.

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