Shortly after Allyn Heim’s parents married and moved to this farm near St. Charles in the early 1950s, his father Tom and grandfather Norman built a pond. Tom could see water carry soil from fields into deep draws draining to the Whitewater River and he didn’t want it to continue.
“They built this pond in 1959,” says Heim. “Dad farmed so it wouldn’t fill up with soil, and we cleaned it out for the first time in 2004, after 51 years.”
Allyn Heim estimates 3-4000 tons of soil were excavated and replaced on fields that year, soil that would have accumulated in the river valley long ago if not captured.
“It was just part of our lives,” says Heim. “They were the first guys here doing contour strips. They were aware of what happened after a rain. They watched ditches and did everything they could to absorb water on the land.”
THE FARM TODAY
Heim now operates the farm, which has five ponds, three sediment-control basins and a network of contour strips, buffer strips and grassed waterways. In every direction, mixed cover crops hold soil on 453 tillable acres now planted and harvested by two nearby farmers through a lease arrangement with Heim, who also builds log homes.
“I chose these guys because they farm the way I want the land farmed,” he explains. “We don’t have conservation clauses in the lease but we’ve talked extensively about how I want things to be, and I’m on the farm every day. They follow contours, leave a couple of rounds intact at waterways and at the bottom of fields in the fall, leave a lot of trash (stalks), integrate them some with the Dominator, and don’t push the edges of fields.” During planting and harvesting Heim shows up and sometimes rides with the combine.
On a chilly fall afternoon we ride the woods’ edge to a distant corner of the farm, where construction of a new pond is nearly complete. Heim pulls up above a wide buffer strip and steeply sloped forest, near a freshly graded sediment control basin.
“This year we moved 300 tons of soil back to the fields from this basin,” he says. “It was an unusually wet year and the waterway above it was new. After one big rain, it was full.”
We pass apple trees gone wild, wildlife feeding plots, a tiny A-frame cabin built by Al and his dad when he was in high school, more ponds, and a well-loved cabin built by Al and his wife Valerie after looking at lake property up north and wondering, ‘Why?’
At the site of the new pond a bulldozer smooths a long berm of soil that will soon capture runoff from fields above. The berm is designed to consistently hold eight feet of water. The sediment control basin we saw earlier is more like a rain garden; it holds water only a short time, to slow drainage and capture sediment.
Al says the pond-building project is not complex but takes engineering expertise, good excavators, and the will to make it happen. For this project he turned to Willis Goll, agricultural engineer, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) for design, and Barth Construction of nearby St. Charles, Minn. for excavation. Federal cost-share funding was secured through NRCS. He took on daily construction oversight himself and manufactured pond overflow devices on the farm.
LEARNED VALUES, FRESH SATISFACTION
This project and the attention that drives it and other work on the farm are clearly informed by the actions and values of Allyn Heim’s most influential mentors—Tom Heim and Norman Heim. They earned a good living while caring for the whole farm environment and the river below. Now Allyn Heim and son, Ehren Heim, who lives on the farm and works as service manager for a nearby farm equipment supplier, do the same. It’s normal.
On this final day of pond construction Heim is satisfied. By summer it will fill, vegetation will grow on exposed soil, and replaced topsoil on the hill above will produce crops. And when it rains, less soil, nitrate, and phosphorus will flow to the river and state park swimming beach below.