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Mined N.D. land going back to farmers

UNDERWOOD, N.D. -- Steven Heger examines the red and green hues of the satellite imagery on his computer screen. The shadings of the different annual mappings reveal the highs, lows and changes in productivity over time on the rented, reclaimed a...

Reclaimed land
In this photo taken Aug. 31, 2009, Steven Heger of Underwood stands on ground recently harvested from reclaimed land near his farmstead near Underwood, N.D. Heger is the third generation on the family's Underwood farm. He began farming in partnership with his father, Laurance, in 1999. The relocation of the farmstead in 2003, from just west of Coal Creek Generating Station to the west side of Underwood, enabled the operation to modernize, although it was not without some investment and sense of loss. (AP...

UNDERWOOD, N.D. -- Steven Heger examines the red and green hues of the satellite imagery on his computer screen. The shadings of the different annual mappings reveal the highs, lows and changes in productivity over time on the rented, reclaimed acres that he farms near Underwood.

"This shows improvement," he said. "By no means is it perfect, but I can now honestly say that this land is actually starting to get better. Is it where it should be? It's getting close."

The day may be nearing when Falkirk Mine returns its first reclaimed crop land to producer ownership.

Falkirk Mine expects to seek its first final bond release of cropping ground in 2010. The mine should be releasing a significant amount of acreage over the next 10 years, said Jeremy Eckroth, an environmental specialist at the mine.

"We are kind of excited about that," Heger said. "That's something we have been looking for. We are eager for it."

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Eager for return

Westley Weible, Turtle Lake, N.D., the McLean County Farmers Union president, said farmers are eager to get land back.

"Farms are getting bought up. For some of them, they used to just replace it, but it's harder now. You don't see land for sale," he said.

Falkirk Mine's practice has been to offer other land to farmers such as the Hegers, who agree to sell property to make way for the mining.

Steven Heger is the third generation on the family's Underwood farm. He began farming in partnership with his father, Laurance, in 1999. The relocation of the farmstead in 2003 -- from just west of Coal Creek Generating Station to the west side of Underwood -- enabled the operation to modernize, although it was not without some investment and sense of loss.

"That's the whole process you have to go through -- letting go of the old and moving on to the new," Laurance Heger said. "That was a real personal thing for me. You have to let go of everything. It's been the right thing to do, and it's been good, but it has been a lot of work."

The Hegers preserved the heritage of the original farm by relocating a small building that serves as a garden shed and by using wood from the old barn and granary to give a unique, nostalgic look to their new business office. The old wood has engravings that date back to the early 1900s.

"Virtually everybody in the family has their names scratched in here somewhere," Steven Heger said. "I think it's a great piece of history, myself."

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Productivity better

The Hegers together have about 500 reclaimed crop acres under lease. They have seen the productivity of the land gradually increase.

"What we were seeing was a 10 percent yield decrease from ground that's not reclaimed. What we have seen in the recent years is that gap narrowing," Steven Heger said.

This year's yields are within 5 percent of non-mined land, he said.

"Our main concern -- something that we still see -- is there's a hardpan in the soil," Heger said.

Falkirk reclamation officials recognize that soil compaction is a problem, creating a hard barrier in the depths of the soil that crop roots cannot penetrate. In a dry year, that hardpan can reduce yields.

Eckroth said that three years ago, Falkirk went to using a truck and shovel rather than a scraper to spread soil to reduce the compaction. Before mining, Falkirk removes about 14 inches of topsoil and 12 to 36 inches of subsoil and stockpiles them to be respread after mining.

In sharing reclamation information with other mine operators, Falkirk also learned of the invention of a machine in Illinois for breaking down hardpan. It added the machine to its fleet.

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Rocks have been another problem.

"When you disturb the ground the way they did, basically every rock is going to be on the surface, and the amount of rock picking is quite substantial," Heger said. "I don't know if it is worse than before. All I know is it is worse than anything we have had around it."

The mine acknowledges the problem and has compensated farmers for time and labor in removing rocks.

Respreading soil

On the positive side, respreading the soil provides a chance to eliminate erosion features, aerate the soil and spread topsoil more evenly.

"We have come a long way in five years with reclamation ground and practices have changed," Heger said. "We are definitely going in the right direction. By no means is it perfect, but it least we are getting better."

The land reclaimed 20 years ago is more rolling and uneven than the land being reclaimed now. And reclaimed land that once was grassland for several years before cropping now goes back to farmers more quickly.

In some cases, Eckroth said, the mine is planting grass and alfalfa for as long as five years and letting ranchers hay the land before going to cash crops. In other cases, farmers are coming in right behind the soil spreaders.

Heger, who is vice president of the McLean County Farm Bureau, said contouring the land for drainage and strategically placing required wetlands during reclamation could make farming more efficient.

Heger also would like to see regulations changed to enable a greater variety of crops to be raised on land being reclaimed. Currently, only sunflowers, flax and small grains other than winter wheat are allowed.

Of the 12,384 total acres fully reclaimed in North Dakota, Falkirk has released 459 acres. Most of Falkirk's acres went into wildlife and recreation, including creation of the Underwood golf course.

To be considered for full bond release, the land must meet the state's standards for productivity, which consider soil type, climactic conditions in a given year and comparisons with a county average or similar field.

Related Topics: CROPSMINING
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