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Invasive species, tornado left park needing some TLC
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With trees downed by a tornado that raced through the area and invasive buckthorn choking out native species, the Cannon River Wilderness Park may be the most obvious example of a Rice County park needing some TLC. But Matthew Verdick isn’t about to stop there.

Last month, the county’s parks and facilities director primed the pump if you will, bringing a group of natural resources and environmental policy students from the University of Minnesota before the Board of Commissioners to discuss the 850-acre natural park, which features miles of walking and horseback riding trails, several miles of the wild and scenic Cannon River and a canoe launch, and implore the board to give it the attention they believe it deserves.

Verdick, who took the Rice County job last year, plans to ask commissioners to increase the parks budget in 2022 and request two seasonal workers to help during .

“We have the assets,” Verdick said late last month. “What we have is amazing.”

The problem: Rice County’s parks haven’t been properly tended.

Verdick hopes the board will soon approve a parks study, an in-depth look at the county’s existing parks, and options for modifying and maintaining them going forward. A study, when complete, will allow the county to qualify for grants that can help implement the completed plan.

It’s not as if the wilderness park has been left untouched. But it’s a massive job. Dozens of volunteers, including County Commissioner David Miller, worked to cut and remove many of the wilderness park trees felled by the 2018 tornado. But despite their work, an untold number remain.

That timber is a fire hazard, says Verdick.

“We have to make sure we maintain them,” said Miller, who snowshoed in the wilderness park as a youngster, of the parks.

Verdick’s been in contact with the Nature Conservancy, which holds the deed to the wilderness park. And though the deed requires the park remain in a natural state, Conservancy officials told Verdick that “doing nothing doesn’t equal leaving it in its natural state.”

“You’re actually changing the natural state by doing nothing,” he said.

The U students, in their report to commissioners, recommended the county budget for buckthorn removal annually, and explained that shrub, often with bright green, glossy leaves, “drastically alters forest ecosystems by reducing soil nitrogen and outcompeting other native understory plants.” They noted that buckthorn, which can grown up to 20 feet tall, can survive in all types of climate, moisture and nutrient conditions, making it incredibly difficult to eliminate.

Buckthorn threatens dogwoods, honeysuckle, tree saplings and wildflowers. The disappearance of these species, the report said, would drastically change the ecology of the area. And, it added, without intervention, buckthorn could take over the park.

From plants to woodwork, BA's ag program covers a variety of interests
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Growing vegetables, building furniture and competing in a livestock judging contest might sound like different areas of interest, but at Bethlehem Academy, they all fit under the agriculture umbrella.

Now that BA has its own chartered FFA chapter, licensed ag teacher and greenhouse, the possibilities are almost endless.

Casi Story, ag instructor at BA, said ag programs function as a three-legged stool composed of the classroom agriculture piece, FFA and supervised agriculture experience (SAE). The SAE piece takes a while to develop, providing an extra level of ag education outside of school, but the classroom and FFA aspects have kicked off with opportunities to grow.

“The old traditional saying of FFA is ‘cows, sows and plows,’ but it’s evolved to be so much more,” Story said.

Currently, Story estimates 15 to 20 students are involved in FFA through BA. Up until this school year, when Faribault High School started its own ag/FFA program, BA was the sole institution providing FFA and ag education in Faribault. FHS has what’s called an affiliated membership in which all students enrolled in ag classes are automatically enrolled in FFA. But at BA, Story said she personally likes to give students the choice to register.

In Minnesota, FFA is open to grades seven through 12. Story teaches beginning level ag classes to grades six through eight, and once students start high school, they have a plethora of ag-related classes to include in their schedules.

As a licensed ag teacher, Story can teach not only classes related to plants, animals and wildlife but also industrial tech classes. She teaches intarsia, which involves fitting different shapes of wood together to create mosaic-like pictures. Other classes include woodworking, plant science and AFNR (Ag, Food and Natural Resources). Through a work release class, BA students receive work safety training by going out into the community to obtain hands-on experiences.

Next year, Story said BA will focus on building more electives like animal science and a fish and wildlife course. The woods classes will be restructured into a tiered model in which students first learn the basics of building structures like nightstands and then advance to a second class that teaches detailed finishing skills. The final tier, the most advanced class in woodworking, would allow students to choose their own project to complete. Story also plans to offer an engines class next year.

After taking Introduction to Agriculture as a prerequisite, BA students can branch out into one of three pathways: plants, animals or fish and wildlife. Story said she would like to break down the broad plant science pathway into more classes, like floral design, in the future. But since the installation of the greenhouse this past year, students have been growing tomatoes, peppers, kohlrabi and flowers.

“It’s meant to be a learning experience and to make as many lifelong gardeners and garden enthusiasts as we can,” Story said.

BA sophomores Karlie DeGrood and Brooke Johnson are both enrolled in the plant science class.

“We’re growing a lot of plants right now to sell in May,” DeGrood said. “We’ve also done a lot of experiments with different soil mediums.”

Interested in possibly studying agronomy one day, DeGrood said the plant science class has helped her to expand her knowledge in that field. Johnson said she was curious about the science aspects of plants.

DeGrood and Johnson are both FFA members as well.

“FFA highlights are meetings and getting to compete with other chapters,” Johnson said.

DeGrood added that, even with COVID-19 limiting interactions, the FFA program connected with the community by selling butter braids, and far more than last year.

“And even though we’re still a beginning chapter, we still have quite a few kids willing to come to meetings,” DeGrood said. “We’re definitely more of a relaxed chapter because we’re just beginning.”

In FFA, BA students competed in three contests this year: floriculture, general livestock judging and general dairy judging. The teams didn’t advance to state, but for competing at a time of change within the ag department, she said, “I’m actually pretty impressed with how well we did.”

Next year, Story said the chapter plans to expand its focus to three to five areas and go from there.

“We have so much potential, and so much support from the community,” she said.

$2M grant to help pay for Faribault's new water tower
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Thanks to a popular state program, Faribault taxpayers are now set to get help paying for a long awaited water tower on the north end of town that will serve the community’s growing industrial park.

Last week, Faribault received a $2 million grant to help fund a new water tower from the Business Development Public Infrastructure Program through the state’s Department of Employment and Economic Development. The City Council approved plans for the water tower in 2019 with an expected completion date of July 2021. However, the project was delayed by about a year as the city worked to select a final location, design the new water tower and secure the grant dollars needed to pay for it. Groundbreaking could now take place this summer with completion in 2022.

The site on which the water tower will soon sit is currently owed by Met-Con Construction, next to its complex on the extreme north end of Faribault. The city’s Planning Commission will discuss a replatting of the site, which will allow the city to purchase a small chunk of Met-Con’s property for the tower.

City Administrator Tim Murray said that the final design of the tower is expected to be discussed at the May 11 council meeting. Bolton & Menk is in charge of the tower’s structural design, but it’s still unclear what the tower’s highly visible surface will look like.

To gin up interest in the tower and offer a fun activity for Faribault’s youth, Mayor Kevin Voracek held a water tower coloring contest during the 2019 Heritage Days. Voracek said he doesn’t know if any of the ideas developed by the contest’s winners could be used in the final design, but said it could be difficult as many of the submitted designs were intricate.

City Engineer Mark DuChene said that the new tower will help resolve issues with water pressure and flow deficiencies in the northern part of town. It’s also expected to foster future growth and benefit several nearby businesses, including Daikin Applied and Trystar. Despite the grant, the city expects to pay most of the bill. DuChene noted that BDPI traditionally provides a 50-50 matching grant, but when additional needed infrastructure costs are considered, the overall project is likely to rise above $4 million.

BDPI is an economic development tool strongly backed by legislators, with local Sen. John Jasinski is a particularly strong supporter. The Faribault Republican, who currently chairs the Senate’s Local Government Committee, has sponsored numerous bills to fund the program.

“One of my favorite programs we have is the Business Development Public Infrastructure program,” Jasinski said in a statement. “This program has been incredibly successful over the last decade, with more than 109 grants worth nearly $50 million and more than 14,000 jobs created or retained.”

BDPI is designed to help local governments to afford basic infrastructure improvements, from the construction of new roads to an expansion of water and wastewater service, often needed in order to secure large investments.

While the new water tower isn’t tied to a specific project, DuChene and the city’s Community and Economic Development Director Deanna Kuennen were able to make a persuasive case to the state that the project is still of great importance to Faribault’s economic growth plans.

It’s far from the first time that the competitive grant program has been used to help secure local business expansion. Faribault alone has received about $2 million combined in recent years to help accommodate expansion plans from Daikin and Faribault Foods.

“Any time you get $2 million in state funding, there’s reason to be excited,” DuChene said. “This is a big piece of the puzzle.”