By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily News
A couple from north of Havre were honored this month for their actions over the past 25 years to preserve their land.
Alec and Karen McIntosh were given the 2004 Agricultural Leadership Award by the Havre Area Chamber of Commerce Agribusiness Committee for their conservation practices.
Alec said he uses practices like no-till farming and contour ditches to prevent erosion for a simple reason.
"The soil's dear to my heart. I don't want to see it destroyed and eroded," he said.
Alec added that he wants to give the land to its next steward in good condition.
"We want it to be in better shape when we turn it over than when we started," he said.
Deana Grobofsky of USDA's National Resources and Conservation Service office in Havre said she has worked with the McIntoshes on several conservation projects. She contacted them to have their farm as part of the Soil Conservation District tourthis fall.
"I know Alec is very progressive," she said.
About 50 people took the tour. "We had an excellent turnout," Grabofsky said.
She said the tour gives an opportunity for people to see conservation practices and what they do - information that is not well-known.
Mike Zook, Farm Service Agency executive director in Hill County, was on the chamber Agribusiness subcommittee that selected the McIntoshes for the leadership award. He said the McIntoshes were selected for more than just their conservation.
"They show leadership in the community in a variety of ways," he said, including in their church and 4-H, and Alec's position on the board of directors of KXEI Christian radio, as well as donating to local causes.
They were among the first farmers in the Havre area to implement some of the conservation practices they use, Zook said. But they don't blow their own horn about it, he added.
"They're always leading by example and helping those that ask," Zook said.
While the McIntoshes want to turn the land over to its next owner in better shape than when they started, Alec said he doesn't know who will take over the farm. The McIntoshes' sons are in college, with Ryan, 23, studying civil engineering technology at Montana State University-Northern in Havre and Christopher, 21, studying electrical engineering and computer science at Montana State University-Bozeman.
But Ryan or Christopher might come back to the farm, Alec said.
"They enjoy it out there. They both help some, as time can permit. They're a great deal of help," he said.
The McIntoshes' hired hand, Cory Pierson, has helped with the operation for about 20 years.
"He's an integral part of our operation. He's involved in every aspect of it," Alec added.
Both Alec and Karen are active in running the farm, with Alec doing much of the fieldwork and repairing and maintaining the machinery and Karen concentrating on the accounting and bookkeeping.
"During harvest, though, everybody's involved pretty much as long as they can stand it," Alec added.
That got tough during this year's harvest, Karen said, when the air conditioning went out in the combine she was driving.
"It felt like it was 130 degrees in there," she said.
Conservation practices started as soon as Alec arrived on his land. One of the first conservation projects Alec started when he bought the land in 1977 was to build a shelter belt around the house - four rows of trees a quarter-mile long.
"We start weeding it, it seems massive," he added.
The shelter belt gives protection from wind and snow, and also provides shelter for wildlife, primarily birds like ring-necked pheasants, Hungarian pheasants and sharp-tail grouse, rabbits and deer.
The shelter belt attracts a lot of deer, especially in the winter.
"They are a pest," Karen said.
"The males, when they rub their velvet off, they destroy my trees," Alec said.
"And eat my flowers," Karen added.
Alec said the pheasants come into the shelter belt from land adjacent to the house that's enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, a federal program intended both to prevent erosion and to provide wildlife habitat.
Farmers make conservation proposals to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to take their land out of active production and plant it with native grasses, trees and shrubs. The USDA pays rent to the farmer and helps pay the costs of taking the land out of production.
Alec said that in addition to the conservation the program provides, he considers it another crop.
"It generates income just like any other crop," he said.
The McIntoshes also practice no-till farming, leaving debris and residue from the year's crop on the ground, planting through it the next year.
"That cuts down on wind and water erosion. We've done that for 15 years," he said. "The less we have to touch it the better."
A major project on the McIntosh farm has been designing and building contour ditches to prevent erosion.
Alec said the land is reshaped slightly to make contoured ditches along runoff routes. That keeps the runoff from snowmelt or heavy rains from eroding the soil.
They have built 17 contour ditches with a total length of 6 to 7 miles.
The McIntoshes also use crop rotation with a variety of crops, including wheat, barley, peas, lentils, canola, chickpeas and grass.
"That whole regime of crop variety, we use that both for weed and disease control and changing, improving the tilth," Alec said.
Changing the tilth means changing the texture and feel of the soil. Alec said doing that has produced a benefit people don't usually see in cropland.
"We've actually had some places where angleworms are starting to show up," he said.