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A desilting basin was constructed on the Rolf Mahlberg farm about a decade ago. Two gullies run into the basin, and then sediment settles out to improve the quality of water before it reaches Lake Ocheda. (Julie Buntjer / Forum News Service)

Mahlberg named Nobles County’s Conservationist of the Year

WORTHINGTON, Minn. — Rolf Mahlberg has spent nearly his entire life on the rolling prairie along the shores of Lake Ocheda, south of Worthington, Minn.

It’s where he learned from his dad, Donald, to protect the water by protecting the soil.

The elder Mahlberg had a respect, a reverence, for the land — likely instilled by his father and grandfather, who settled in rural Worthington in the 1870s. Today, that conservation-mindedness is carried on through Rolf and the younger generations of Mahlbergs growing up in Section 10, Bigelow Township.

Land is a resource that needs to be protected, Rolf said, and he is doing what he can to ensure that happens. His efforts have led to his selection by the Nobles County Soil and Water Conservation District as the 2017 Nobles County Conservationist of the Year.

Nobles SWCD District Conservationist John Shea said Mahlberg was chosen for the honor because of his willingness to implement projects that benefit the soil.

“Rolf has been involved in many conservation practices for many years,” Shea said. “He’s not afraid to try new conservation practices, and he has always been a steward of the land and an advocate for clean water.”

The Mahlberg farm was purchased by Don in the early 1960s, and they immediately began implementing soil conservation practices on the property, situated along a mile of Lake Ocheda’s lakeshore. Terraces constructed in 1964 remain in place today, still protecting the soil from wind and water erosion.

Mahlberg has been the caretaker of the land since 1986, when his dad retired from farming. He’s continued to look for new technology and alternative practices to improve soil health.

“One of the first things I did was take out surface intakes,” Mahlberg shared, noting that one was removed completely and environmental inlets replaced the other two.

About 15 years ago he installed a couple of new terraces with structural intakes on the land in accordance with Best Management Practices standards. After that, he began enrolling some of his marginal ground in the Conservation Reserve Program and established buffers.

“I think I’ve got every slope remedied either by CRP practices or tillage practices that have always been minimal,” Mahlberg said.

His last big project was the construction of a desilting basin, which collects water from gullies from the southeast and the southwest. As water enters the basin, the sediments have an opportunity to settle out, creating cleaner water that will eventually make its way into Lake Ocheda.

While the basin has a job to do, it also creates a perfect environment for fish habitat. Mahlberg has stocked the basin with bass, creating hours of fishing enjoyment for the grandchildren.

Mahlberg’s next project is to install an engineered grassed waterway early next spring, a project he worked on with the local Natural Resources Conservation Service office.

In addition to construction of conservation practices, Mahlberg began experimenting with cover crops four years ago as a way to boost soil health, and will be 100 percent no-till on his 200 acres of crop ground after harvest this fall.

“I just like the thought of not having exposure to winter winds,” Mahlberg said, adding that an increase in larger rain events was also a factor.

“As a student of soil sciences, anytime you can protect the structure of a soil and have it not broken down into its textures, you’re going to have it less mobile,” he said. “Soil is this wonderful resource that needs to be protected. I don’t want it shipped to my neighbors and I don’t want it to go into the lake.”

Mahlberg, an agriculture and environmental science instructor for more than 40 years, offered praise for agencies and staff who are available to help landowners like him do the best they can with their land. He’s worked closely with the SWCD, NRCS, Okabena-Ocheda Watershed District (he’s served on the board of managers for more than 20 years), and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

“I really appreciate the educational opportunities they provide on the new technologies as they come out,” he said. “All of the agencies are proactive, not reactive. They’ll call me when they see a program that I might be interested in. I’ve been a beneficiary of the proactive training.”

In February, Mahlberg earned Minnesota Agriculture Water Quality Certification on his farm, which means a 10-year protection from any potential new state regulations.

Mahlberg said, however, that if there are more things he can do to improve his farm, he will be among the first in line to do them.

“Why wouldn’t I want to continue to adopt practices that are beneficial?” he asked.

If there was one practice Mahlberg would like to be able to add to his farm, it would be technology to remove nitrates, so that during large rain events, they can be captured before outletting into the lake.

“Nitrates, with all of these practices, are mobile,” he said. “If there was one last gatekeeper of technology to remove them … I will adopt it.”

Mahlberg, along with Conservationists of the Year honorees from other counties across the state, will be recognized at the Minnesota Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts’ annual convention in early December.