Podcast Episode 18

The Intersection of Pheasants Forever and Conversation on the Farm

The Intersection of Pheasants Forever and Conservation on the Farm

With Guest:
  • Matt Holland of Pheasants Forever

Matt Holland has been working with Pheasants Forever as a biologist for over 25 years and is currently the Director of Grant Development. Matt sits down with Jamie to discuss how Pheasants Forever conservation efforts can be a compliment to conservation on the farm. He explains the opportunities for collaboration towards a common goal of better water quality for all.

Episode 18 | 34:25 min
Habitat is one of the solutions that we need to make sure we consider when we're driving sustainability solutions."
— Matt Holland
Matt Holland

Guest Bio

Holland has his Masters in Wildlife Biology from South Dakota State University. Holland started in education, worked as a biologist for Pheasants Forever, and currently is the Director of Grant Development for Pheasants Forever. Holland has been in his current Director role for 25 years. Pheasants Forever’s mission is to conserve pheasants, quail, and other wildlife through habitat improvements, public access, education, and conservation advocacy.

Jamie 0:02
This is the water table.

Kent 0:05
The chance to hear the agricultural side of these issues

Jamie 0:09
A place for people to go find information and education

Matt Helmers 0:12
water management is just going to become even more critical into the future.

Jamie 0:17
How misunderstood what we do is.

Kent 0:22
I would encourage people to open their minds and listen to this dialogue.

Jamie Duininck:
Welcome to The Water Table Podcast. Today we’re going to switch gears and we’re going to talk a little bit about agriculture, conservation, and how they intersect, and a lot more about conservation and Pheasants Forever. I have a guest with me today, Matt Holland. Matt has worked with Pheasants Forever for over 25 years, starting in education, working as a biologist for Pheasants Forever, and currently is the director of grant development for Pheasants Forever. I’ve known Matt for a long time. I consider Matt a friend of, not only a friend of mine, but a friend of agriculture from a conservation perspective. So happy to have you, Matt, and thanks for being part of The Water Table, and let’s talk for a while. 

Matt Holland:
It’s a pleasure to be here. It’s always good to be talking about pheasants and water and agriculture. 

Jamie Duininck:
Good, good. Well, let’s jump right in. And tell us a little bit about Pheasants Forever from … A lot of your role there over the years has been from the biology perspective. And what do you do as a biologist at Pheasants Forever? And how does that connect back to the land and water?

Matt Holland:
My training’s in wildlife biology, wildlife science. I got my master’s out of South Dakota State over in Brookings. And it’s a great fit for Pheasants Forever, as we call ourselves the habitat organization. And so there’s a lot of science and biology and ecology that go on. And when you’re working on the habitat that those birds need, you need to understand the driving factors. And so we bring that to try to make our organization as efficient and effective as we can, and making sure that we’re achieving that habitat mission to the best of our ability. And that’s where the science comes in.

Jamie Duininck:
Yeah, good. I know that over the years working in agriculture, water management, and water and just we run into each other at meetings at different times. And there has been over the years, if you go back a while, there’s been some contention with Ducks Unlimited and with Pheasants Forever with the farming community. And I’ve always admired your role and how you’ve kind of come about that as trying to partner as much as possible. And let’s talk a little bit about that and how you personally, and your organization handles that tension that there can be at times, and what you do to mitigate it and to partner.

Matt Holland:
Sure. Well, a vast, vast majority of wildlife is produced on private lands. It’s on farms and ranches. And so for us to be at odds with agriculture doesn’t make a lot of sense. And so we also know agriculture and farmers and ranchers in particular are interested in stewardship and sustainability and staying on the farm, being profitable, but having a really high quality of life. And we think having habitat and pheasants and wildlife is a big part of the draw to rural America. And so we feel like our mission fits right in with agriculture, and so we want to, and we work with farmers every day. And we’re talking to them, trying to make sure they understand what options they might have to take a piece of their ground that’s maybe not as productive and find some other land uses that work for them, and also work for wildlife, for water quality, for all those societal benefits that habitat can provide.

Jamie Duininck:
Is there four or five, I’m not sure I know the answer to this, but practices that you guys, that are kind of in your back pocket that you do all the time? Or is there a lot of different practices that are promoted for conservation?

Matt Holland:
Yeah. Well, pheasants need grass, and so grasslands are really, really important. And in this part of the world, grass is at a premium. We’ve got very productive soils, very good crop land. And so we’ve got to find a balance. And we know there’s a place on every farm for some grassland. And so that’s the nexus we’re trying to work, and there are a lot of programs, whether it’s USDA conservation programs that we can find a fit for. In Minnesota, there’s a lot of stateside programs. And there’s a lot of stateside programs in a lot of different areas. And so we’ve got biologists in a lot of places that, that’s their number one job, is to talk to farmers, to understand what their issues are, and then to see if they can match a program up that fits for them and achieve our mutual objectives.

Jamie Duininck:
10 years ago, maybe it’s been a little longer now, but the whole buffer strip initiative was something that a lot of farmers bought into. And you started to see it a lot more. Is that a practice that Pheasants Forever supports and endorses? Or is there … As we go along, where I’m going with that too is, in our industry now, we promote saturated buffers and denitrifying wetlands through saturated buffers. Just wondering if there is a support of that at Pheasants, and if that has mutual benefit for … Because we certainly know all the benefits of it for denitrifying in agriculture. But does that actually have benefits for wildlife?

Matt Holland:
Yes. And so buffers are not new. Buffers have been part of the continuous CRP program for decades. And so any buffer could be enrolled at any time by a farmer if they wish to enroll in that. And there’s incentives and cost share and things like that, and we’ve promoted that for years. And so buffers are tremendous for water quality as well, and that’s the impetus for that in this state. But for grasslands, incrementally increasing your grasslands, buffers are pretty narrow. We like to see buffers at least 35 feet wide, if you really want to have productive grassland habitat for nesting grassland birds like pheasants, and wider is better. But ultimately, the buffers are great on the landscape for a lot of the resources, and they do add habitat to the mix, and that help pheasants.

Jamie Duininck:
Yeah, yeah. Do we see with the cycles of agriculture and commodity prices back in the 2010, 2012 timeframe when commodities were really high priced, and land was high priced, and we saw a lot of land coming out of grass, out of CRP programs, and maybe even some native grass that was being broke into farmland. Is that now as we’re seeing high commodity prices again, that cycle’s coming back up, are we seeing that now? Or do you have any knowledge of that?

Matt Holland:
Well, it certainly, there’s a cycle there. And that’s driven by policy, and land prices follow that. So it’s really, from a biology standpoint, as a biologist, and knowing what the state of our grasslands are in, it’s hard to watch because you really see some high commodity prices can really incent people to make some decisions to convert their grasslands. It’s a short-term decision. And I think, and I’ve talked to people that have done that, chasing the dollar, chasing that commodity price. And five years down the road, when they’re dealing with it, they lament that decision. But so we certainly see that. We saw a lot of conversion, especially as you went it went west into the Dakotas, and that’s pretty well documented, what happened out there. And so yeah, when commodity prices are up, grassland conservation is a lot harder.

Jamie Duininck:
Maybe talk a little bit about CRP. I think CRP, from my perspective, my knowledge of CRP is probably dated, program that came out in the ’80s, I think, and was well documented. I think we got up to maybe, you’re going to know all these figures, but maybe mid 30 million acres in America, and some drop off. What’s the current state of CRP? And what do you guys see in your lobbying efforts and your visits with Congress around where you think CRP is headed in the future?

Matt Holland:
Yeah. CRP has been around since ’85. And it’s evolved a lot over those years. It started out being kind of a set aside, and a lot of brome and alfalfa mixes, some straight stands, a switch grass, things like that. And it’s really evolved. We’ve got a lot more practices and options for people now. We’ve got the continuous CRP sign up going that are really targeted practices to a specific resource concern. And so yes, the CRP acreage is off its peak by 10, 12 million acres, for sure. And that’s concerning. And we feel like CRP is really a good, common sense, voluntary, incentive based conservation program that works for farmers and land owners. And it delivers great public benefit. It delivers kind of stable income, no commodity price variations, things like that. And of course, it’s fantastic wildlife habitat. And growing up in the CRP era when some to that stuff was hitting the ground in the late ’80s, it really made a difference as a young kid growing up trying to chase roosters too.

Jamie Duininck:
For sure. And do you see anything coming? I mean, we’re kind of in the middle of farm bill right now, so we’re maybe too far away. But is there any push to renew and get more acres and get back up to that high 30 million acres? Or are we in a new era where this is what we’re going to be with? 

Matt Holland:
Yeah, that’s hard to say. I mean, I think one of the things that CRP does and grasslands do that is they do store carbon. And they store a lot in the soil. They’re storing it above ground, the water quality benefits. And I think CRP needs to evolve, and it’s continuing to evolve. It’s trying to look at things more on a whole farm basis, and really addressing there’s some pretty good work out of Iowa on that there’s roughly 5% to 14% of every field is revenue negative for a farm operation. And the nexus with that percentage of that field and where the problems with nitrates, where the problems with water quality, sedimentation, those kind of things, there’s pretty strong nexus there. So hopefully, we can find ways to make CRP continue to evolve and deliver those public benefits that it always has while working with the practicalities of trying to run a farm operation or ranch operation.

Jamie Duininck:
And that’s interesting, not surprising, but interesting around those percentages of 5% to 14%. Is there any efforts going on that you know of where that information is being shared and trying to partner with conservation and farm groups to say, “Hey, let’s work together and put this land in these locations into programs”?

Matt Holland:
Absolutely. We’ve got several precision ag specialists that work with farmers every day to try to help them analyze and use data, all the data that’s out there right now, that farmers have and some of them use, some of them probably don’t use. I’d probably be one of those that’s not using it. But they know, they know what works on their farm and what doesn’t. But the data really can tell them in dollars and cents what a change in land use could mean for their operation. And that’s really what we’re trying to do, is make sure that they understand that economic analysis. I think when someone’s thinking about putting a piece of their farm into a program, or into forage, or something, some other land use, that the economic analysis isn’t always right there. But with data, it can be. And we’re finding out that, that economic analysis is helping those farmers make good decisions for their operation. And it’s also good for the public and the resource. 

Jamie Duininck:
Good. Let’s talk a little bit about wetlands. How does Pheasants Forever get involved with wetlands? You are more of an upland organization, obviously, and probably grasses, as you said, are where your focus is. But what’s your involvement with wetlands? How do you work with conservation groups, with farmers, in regards to wetlands?

Matt Holland:
Yeah. Pheasants like wetlands, so we like them. And one of the main attributes of wetlands for pheasants is winter cover. And when the snow and the cold come, pheasants need a place to go and survive the winter. They’re resident wildlife. They don’t migrate. And so cattails and heavy wetland cover is really the preferred winter cover for pheasants, at least in this country. And so we like to see those on the landscape where they make sense. And so yeah, we’re engaged with landowners, and we support a lot of the work of the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program that’s administered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service that partners with land owners to help them achieve their objectives, again all incentive, voluntary, incentive based programs that work with land owners to try to …

Matt Holland:
If they’ve got a spot that they’ve been fighting for years, and conventional agronomic approaches don’t work, wetland restoration is a wonderful thing. It does tremendous things for water quality. We know that. We know wetlands are the filters for the landscape. And so having those key targeted wetlands on the landscape is really important from both a wildlife standpoint as well as a resource standpoint.

Jamie Duininck:
And I think it’s good to know it, and I’m glad you say that because you’re sitting across from a guy, talking to a guy who has other solutions for those tough to work in areas that you can [inaudible 00:15:53], but sometimes there is a solution both ways. Always, there’s a solution to create a wetland, there’s a solution to manage the water and plant a crop on it. But sometimes that solution either way is really cost prohibitive. And I’m sure that we can engineer something in the water management area to get rid of the water, but it might cost a lot of money. And I just encourage people to look at it because everything you said is correct, that wetlands are a great filter for water, they’re good for wildlife. They might even be good for your farm in regards to how you want to practice your agricultural practice on the rest of your farm. 

Jamie Duininck:
It might make complete sense and you might get paid to do it. And the amount of money you’re going to put into it to manage the water and engineer and outlet and all that kind of thing, you probably should just understand all of your options and know that the payback might be way better to just allow the wildlife to be there and have the water quality aspect in a good place.

Matt Holland:
Yeah. I mean, I think I’m a firm believer that habitat is a solution. And whether it’s a wetland, whether it’s grassland, whether it’s a pasture, habitat can be a good solution for a farm operation. And it’s having manmade solutions to everything, we have those, but sometimes it’s better to work with the land, work with nature, and habitat can be a good option. There’s economic benefits to doing it that way as well, so you need to do that analysis. And hopefully, from our standpoint, we want habitat to be a big solution for a lot of these issues.

Jamie Duininck:
Yeah. Let’s talk a little bit about where your funding comes from. And maybe you want to explain a little bit what you do in your current role as director of grant development. Where does most of the funding that Pheasants Forever receives in a year come from?

Matt Holland:
Sure. Yeah. Well, we’re a membership organization. We’re a grassroots organization with 750 chapters across the country, so we have local people doing local things. They’re raising money and they’re deciding how they want to do our mission with that money at the local level. And so we get membership and those kind of things, but a big chunk of our funding comes from grants. We work a lot with state and federal agencies. We work with foundations. We’re doing more and more in the ag sector, working on sustainability, working with commodity groups, again, trying the find win-win scenarios for habitat and producers out there. So we’ve got some good partnerships with South Dakota Corn. We’re working with some ag retailers, trying to get this precision conservation going on, Land O Lakes. So there’s lots of interest.

Matt Holland:
I think the consumers are driving a lot of that. And again, I think habitat is one of the solutions that we need to make sure we consider when we’re driving sustainability solutions, whether you’re a supply chain company, or whether you’re a producer, or whether you’re a company that has sustainability goals. So that’s are really exciting piece of kind of the future, I think. And we believe habitat’s going to be right there and be a viable option for a lot of those things. So we’re working with a wide range of partners. Anybody that wants to see habitat on the ground and have habitat as a solution to an issue, we’re excited to talk to them. 

Jamie Duininck:
One of the things that over the years, maybe the last five to 10 years has changed, and I’ve personally gotten some calls on and some conversations, is around Pheasants Forever getting into the real estate world and buying marginal farmlands. And I think that just that fact isn’t probably the story that I hear. The story is more is paying kind of premium dollar or competing with farmers. And I’m sure there’s some friction there a little bit at times. But how do you guys work with, or what’s your story on that, that’s a good thing for the community in which you’re buying and the local farm community?

Matt Holland:
Well, yeah. We do purchase lands for wildlife habitat and access, so there’s a two prong benefit there, along with all the natural resource benefits that it provides to the public. And so yeah, we’ve got a lot of local chapters all across rural Minnesota that are excited about again strategically doing this. We’re not … Where it makes sense, where again, we target marginal farmland for the most part. We’re working with willing sellers who want to, in many cases, want to see a legacy of wildlife habitat and public access on a piece of their farm or on their farm. And so we’re always working with that, and again, we’re trying to build upon some of those past investments, where again, where it makes sense, so that we can put some pieces of this prairie landscape back together so it functions at a high level for species like pheasants and other wildlife.

Jamie Duininck:
And when you do that, does that 100% of the time become public access, those lands? 

Matt Holland:
Yes, for the most part. I would say for the most part. We do have the ability to own and hold lands now. Our board of directors has put that forward. So there are a few instances where we are holding the land and doing it. But by and large, the vast majority of these projects become part of a DNR wildlife management area, or a waterfall protection area, or something like that.

Jamie Duininck:
One of the things I’ve heard, and really just asking this so I can verify is this right or not, but when a nonprofit like Pheasants Forever buys a piece of property, then it comes off the tax rolls. Is that true?

Matt Holland:
Not exactly. So the long-term land holder, whether if it’s Minnesota DNR, or if it’s the US Fish and Wildlife Service, they both do pay payments to the counties that either in some instances, it’s more than when it was in private land. In other instances, it’s less. But the bottom line is, there is a payment that does mitigate the impact to that local county and township. 

Jamie Duininck:
Okay. That’s good to know and good information to share on the podcast. Let’s talk a little bit about walk in access. That’s another conversation I actually haven’t heard much about lately, but I know it was a bigger buzzword and something that I know was being promoted at different conservation levels years ago. And is there still walk in land? How does that work? Are you working with private land owners on that? Explain that.

Matt Holland:
Yeah. Walk in access is a big component of what we do. And actually, Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever, we just added access to our mission statement because having access to places to go hunt is one of the major limiting factors for people getting into it. We’ve got a lot of people living in the city. And hunting is not easy, and so a lot of folks don’t have connections back out to the farm anymore. And so having a place to go is really something that we need to provide people. And so walk in access programs, where you work with private land owners, I’d like these programs that work with them to help improve their habitat that they have. And then they get a payment also to allow public access. We get people coming out to the rural communities, spending their dollars and their time and their resources there, making connections there. It’s just a really positive, good option.

Matt Holland:
And so access payments aren’t going to change your life, probably, but it is a supplemental income that a farmer or land owner can use as part of their operation to help justify what they’re doing and make ends meet. So we support it, we help our partner agencies. A lot of the access programs are partially funded through USDA, and then partnering with stateside agencies to help deliver those, so we’re engaged in many states in helping to, especially reach out and make sure farmers and land owners are understanding that this is a program that may be a good fit for them. And so from a hunter standpoint and from a recruitment of people that understand hunting, and know what hunting is, and people that have an experience out there, having a place to go is right up there at the top. And so we’re very supportive of those programs.

Jamie Duininck:
The last year and a half or so with COVID, there’s a lot of examples of people getting out into the outdoors more, whether it’s fishing, camping. I heard a statistic on how many more campers were sold in the last year compared to the previous 12 months, and it was staggering. I don’t remember the exact. I haven’t heard that, but did we see the same thing in hunting? Was there more hunting that happened in the fall of 2020?

Matt Holland:
Absolutely. And I think that speaks to the need and the desire for having places to go. And so there were people everywhere, whether you were on the lake, or you’re out in the prairie, you’re up in the woods, people were getting out and spending their time. They had time. And so I remember going to Runnings in Willmar here, and I couldn’t find an anchor or a life vest. And then they said, “We haven’t had those for months.” That was during the pandemic. So people were out, and the same is true with, I just heard they were interviewing Polaris on NPR about recreational vehicles and how they cannot keep them in stock. And so I think that speaks to the importance of having a place to go, having a place to meet up with the land. Farmers and ranchers get to do that every day. And there’s a lot of people that don’t. And having that connection and understanding of hunting and conservation and farming and agriculture, that only benefits our society. So it was kind of a cool renaissance to see that through the pandemic. 

Jamie Duininck:
So kind of getting into that a little bit deeper, is there anything Pheasants Forever is thinking about, or already does, around connecting kids, younger kids, or kids that are not in a position from the standpoint of they don’t have a family that hunts, don’t have land that hunts, just but specifically on the youth, getting them exposed?

Matt Holland:
Yes. Yeah, we have lots of youth mentor hunts that go on. A lot of our chapters have fantastic programs. And if there’s someone out there that is not able to, or doesn’t have that opportunity, we want to talk to them. We want to provide that opportunity, the education that goes along with it, so they know how to do it right, and they’re comfortable and confident. And I know I’ve been on mentor hunts out here in Kandiyohi County, and people are shooting their first rooster. They’re seeing the dogs work. They’re getting that feel for what that pheasant hunting culture is like, that you and I know and love.

Matt Holland:
And again, not necessarily that they have to be a pheasant hunter, but they have an understanding of what that is and how it works, and that it’s not this unknown, fearful thing of what hunters do, or don’t do. And I would say the same for when they go knock on a door and talk to a farmer to see if they can go hunt that back 40. And so it’s just a good thing, and so we have a lot of programs. And there’s a nationwide movement with agencies as well, called R3, to try to recruit, reactivate hunters. Yep.

Jamie Duininck:
Yeah. And I think the reason I ask that is, you kind of mentioned it there, is just there’s a loss of a connection to hunting. There’s also a loss of connection to rural America and to agriculture. And just encourage you guys, and hopefully you encourage the agriculture community back that we should work together on these things because they are all, if somebody does decide they want to hunt, most of the time, that’s going to be interaction with a private landowner or a farmer. And they have to understand and respect what the farmer does, and how they … If you don’t know anything about agriculture, you might do something that’s ridiculous in the eyes of the farmer, and you don’t know. So somehow, I think it’s good for all of us that live here on the rural landscape and enjoy, whether it’s agriculture or hunting, to make sure we connect the people back that just don’t have a connection.

Jamie Duininck:
I think the story I like to tell once in a while and was just mind boggling to me is, my wife is an auctioneer, and a lot of times has opportunities to sell benefits and galas. And a few years back, she sold an opportunity for 10 kids to go out to out of Minneapolis toward Buffalo, Minnesota for a hayride. And the hayride for 10 kids sells for 8000 bucks. And it’s because these kids never … These parents thought, “My kids are never going to have an opportunity to do this. Let’s all band together.” And to me it’s like, “Whoa. We should probably start a business here.” But the point is really they don’t have the opportunity. It’s so obvious in that analogy. And as a rural society, we’ve got to figure out how to create it. And if we do it together, it’ll be far more successful than if we try to do alone.

Matt Holland:
Yeah. And those kids, the technology they have at their fingertips is amazing. And sometimes it’s depressing because they don’t look up. They don’t see the world around them. And so providing those kind of opportunities and making sure they do it responsibly and have the supports that they need, both from their peer groups, as well as kind of the education about what responsible recreation looks like. If you’re going on somebody’s farm, here’s the things you really need to pay attention to. And again, because when they lift their head up from their phone, they’re probably not thinking about that. They’re just saying, “I’m going hunting.” And so trying to provide that structure and that platform, and working with land owners, we’ve got a lot of great land owners we work with that provide that opportunity in our local communities, working with our chapters to give those kids that chance.

Matt Holland:
And we’re doing things with women in conservation and hunting too. There’s a lot of women landowners out there. There’s a lot of women that … We have a Women on the Wing initiative that we’re trying to engage and support women who are getting into the conservation and into hunting. And so that’s a really exciting endeavor. So we’re trying to recruit, retain, and reactivate as many folks as we can into that lifestyle, and at least understanding that lifestyle. And we think that’s a great thing for rural America, for farmers, for conservation, for hunting, for all the things that we care about. 

Jamie Duininck:
Yeah. And I think at The Water Table Podcast, we’ve talked a lot in the last year just about sustainability, about water quality, and ag. And certainly, what you guys do is a piece of it. I’ve said often that there’s some contention, and there is, and there will be. And there’s probably more on the wetland side. But it doesn’t matter where it is, there doesn’t need to be the same, that contention. We should be able to work together, find ways and solutions. And I’m just really happy that on a personal level, we’ve been able to do that, and that from my perspective on where I work in agriculture, Pheasants Forever has been a good partner. So thank you for that. And here on The Water Table, we kind of like to end with giving you the last word, and kind of what you’d like to leave the listeners with.

Matt Holland:
Well, sure. Well, one thing that we’re always trying to move the needle as it relates to habitat, and we’re working with a lot of private landowners and farmers and ranchers across North America to try to find ways, win-win solutions to put habitat on the ground. And we’ve got an organizational campaign that we just launched here in February called Call of the Uplands, and it’s completely designed to work with a vast majority of the private landowners across the pheasant range and the quail range, and to deliver habitat. And so if you want to learn more about the Call of the Uplands campaign, go to calloftheuplands.org or go to pheasantsforever.org and check us out. I think you’ll like what you see.

Jamie Duininck:
Well, thanks for your time, Matt. And hopefully, there are some negatives to a hot, dry summer, but from a pheasant perspective, I think we’ve had a good hatch, and hopefully you and I can get out and bang a few this fall. So thanks for your time on The Water Table Podcast. 

Matt Holland:
It’s been a pleasure being here. Thank you, Jamie.

Jamie Duininck:
If you enjoy what you’re listening to, you can find us on your favorite podcast platform. You can find us on Twitter or Facebook, you can also find us at watertablepodcast.com. Thanks for listening.