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Sand County Foundation, Minnesota High Schools Partner for Pollinators

Minnesota high schools are a part of a national effort to establish habitat for imperiled insect pollinators and monarch caterpillars. Essential for crop pollination and ecological diversity, they are at risk partly due to loss of farmland habitat.

In response, Sand County Foundation partnered with the St. Paul-based Monarch Joint Venture to establish a pollinator habitat grant program for high schools. The program supplies seed and other growing materials to high school agricultural and science departments. Students then grew native wildflowers in school greenhouses to be planted in rural areas. In Minnesota the pilot program was sponsored by Enel Green Power North America Inc., operator of the 150 MWdc Aurora Solar project.

These organizations also sponsored a Pollinator Habitat Curriculum Guide for Midwestern high school educators. Created by the University of Wisconsin’s Earth Partnership and aligned with Common Core and Next Generation Science standards, the guide contains a set of activities appropriate for establishing, managing and monitoring habitat for monarchs, insect pollinators and grassland birds.

One of the participants in the pollinator habitat grant program was Marlina Jackson, who teaches agriculture and plant science at Clinton High School, a small, rural town near the Wisconsin-Illinois border. During National Pollinator Week, a small group of her students brought trays of pollinator-friendly plants to a local farmer. Together they dug holes and planted native prairie vegetation between a wheat field and stream.

“For farm kids to see the relevance of planting pollinators is big,” said Jackson. “The application was easy to fill out and Sand County Foundation was great to work with.”

Finding a home for the plants was easy. Local farmer Gary Sommers, is a Clinton FFA Alumni member who has implemented several conservation projects to increase soil health and wildlife habitat.

“I thought this would be a good hands-on experience for the kids,” said Sommers, who grows 1,200 acres of corn, soybeans and winter wheat in southern Wisconsin.

For the planting he chose a scenic, five-acre filter strip enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program that he mows occasionally and conducts controlled burns to combat box elder trees and other invasive plants.

On an overcast Wednesday that fell during National Pollinator Week (June 18-24), pollinator-friendly red milkweed, compass plants, rattlesnake master, blazing stem and pale purple coneflower were reintroduced to the landscape.

Corn and soybean are king in Wisconsin's Rock County thanks to its rich soils and mostly flat landscape. Dave Gundlach, the county’s USDA-NRCS conservationist, describes Sommers as an early adopter of conservation practices.

Sommers experiments with cover crops (red clover, buckwheat, burseem clover, tillage radish, oats and cereal rye) to bolster his soil’s health. All of his cropland is enrolled in the federal Conservation Stewardship Program. Hilly and wetland areas enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program have become a magnet for deer and songbirds.

Last year Sommers converted another 10 acres of highly-erodible farmland into a pollinator area. At the intersection of two waterways its layout was a challenge to farm. Most agricultural crops rely on pollinators, so their presence can provide economic gain and ecological benefits.

“He’s a good role model for these kids who someday may be taking over farms in this area,” Gundlach said.

Sommers does some mentoring on conservation practices to a young farmer that he rents some land to. Aside from that, most of his public outreach takes place at the coffee shop or over the fence line.

“It’s one person to the next. People see that what he’s doing is working and it spreads from there,” Gundlach added.

Sand County Foundation is a national non-profit that champions voluntary conservation practices by farmers and ranchers to improve soil, water and wildlife habitat. Along with the pollinator habitat program with high schools, Sand County Foundation works with rural landowners to plant prairie filter strips within farm fields. These pollinator habitats serve double-duty by also protecting water quality.

Sand County Foundation is a member of the Monarch Joint Venture, which offers information on establishing monarch and pollinator habitat. For more on Sand County Foundation’s pollinator efforts,