As he stood on a creaking, frozen lake with his herding dog named Keeper, Jim Jirik pulled a wire trap from the water. It was full of hundreds of flopping minnows that he’ll use for fishing bait.
When he worked at the U.S Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service and now, on his own farm, he’s consistently thinking up new sustainable practices to try out.
For this reason, Jirik Family Farms was named the 2022 Outstanding Conservationist for Rice County. The Rice Soil and Water Conservation District annually gives the honor to a person, family or organization for “outstanding accomplishments in implementing conservation practices and improving Minnesota’s natural resources.”
Jirik and others honored by other conservation districts will be honored next month at the Minnesota Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts annual convention.
Sustainable practices on the Jirk farm near Shieldsville include a waste system that prevents contaminated runoff and their no-till style of farming. Jirik also keeps over 100 bee colonies. He also uses fire and electric charges, rather than harsh chemicals, to weed his fields of crops.
“We farm organic,” Jirik said. “We’ve been doing that since ‘98. There’s not many farmers who farm without herbicides or pesticides or synthetic fertilizers like we do. We plant all non-GMO crops.”
One of the ways Jirik farms without pesticides or herbicides is by using cover crops. Rather than tilling the land before planting corn each year, Jirik puts short rye plants in with the tall corn stalks a month or so before harvesting the corn.
“Once all that corn is (harvested) and the rye will continue to grow,” he said. “Then, in the spring, you’ll have a nice lush green cover over your corn field. And you plant directly into that. You don’t do anything — no tillage, no herbicides — just go right and plant.”
He went on to explain that the rye dies off, since it’s a short-season crop, and supplies nutrients to the corn. This practice also prevents erosion and adds to the biodiversity of the land, acts as a weed barrier and prevents some insect infestations.
Some older farmers are “set in their ways,” according to Jirik. He said this is why government incentives to share the cost for more sustainable equipment and methods of farming are important.
“They’ll say, ‘We’re going to give you $15 an acre to try this,’” he said. “Then, after you realize it works, it saves fuel and it saves erosion, maybe that practice will be adopted the rest of your life. You know, it gives you a chance to try it and alleviates some of that risk.”
The Jirik’s land is at the start of the Cannon River. A buffer separates his farmland from the river, helping prevent sediment and runoff from getting into the river.
He explained that many of the smaller rivers, like the Cannon River, don’t receive this sort of extra care. The harsh chemicals that leak into these water supplies eventually find their way to the Gulf of Mexico, which is why shrimp catchers have to travel further out to find live shrimp nowadays.
On the production side of things, the Jirik Family Farm products are far more diversified than one or two crops. He travels to about 75 farmers markets each year to sell his syrup, honey, wax, meat and other goods.
Behind his barn, two 1,500-gallon tanks are full of sap, which run through an $80,000 system, producing fresh maple syrup. He also makes several unique products, like apple syrup and maple cotton candy.
“I feel like I’m probably the luckiest person in the world,” Jirik said. “I got to do so many things and I have freedoms here. I get to farm. I get to fish. I get to hunt, gather, raise bees and tap trees. I mean, I commercial fished in Alaska.
“I’ve had a beautiful life. If I cashed in tomorrow, I’d have lived a full life. I work all day out here in this beautiful environment and I’m blessed. I mean, how many people do you know who spend their morning trapping minnows?”