Profiles in Conservation

Profiles in Conservation

Keeping in Harmony with Family Legacy

Delaware landowner develops diversion crops for deer

By Glenn Rosenholm

Technically speaking, a forest can be as small as one acre of land with as little as 10 percent forest cover. That means a lot of people own forests, and it’s likely most of them don’t know it.

On the other side of the forest size spectrum there are no limitations. A forest can be as big as someone would like it to be. Among those larger forest landowners in the Eastern United States is Leslie Merriken.

Merriken said her three properties in Delaware total about 1,200 acres. About 850 acres of that is forested, and the balance is tillable land.

“One is a 600-acre farm (Fairplay Farm), one is 440 acres (California Farm), and the last is about 120 acres. They’re split up,” she said. The Fairplay Farm alone has a pine plantation of about 425 acres, and the balance is crop land.

Loblolly pines, poplar, white pine, gums, maples, and oaks grow on her land. “I’m trying to get funding to release the oaks from the gums and maples surrounding them to get some more sunlight to the oaks and the forest floor,” she added.

“The forestry part, with long-range goals, is for timber income, wildlife, and my own personal satisfaction,” she said. “There’s nothing better after a stressful day than to come out to these farms and just sit there. I find it very peaceful.”

Merriken said she has areas set aside for wildlife enhancement. “One has a wildlife pond with a windmill to ensure a continuous flow of water. We have diversion crops between the pine plantation and the tillable crops (wheat, corn, and soybeans) and another forested area I just had thinned for wildlife enhancement. I do have hunting leases on these properties. I find if you do have hunting leases, people will take care of the wildlife more. The hunting leases are strictly managed by me and my consultant. I even require the hunters to extract the jaw bones from the deer, so that I can age them by their teeth,” she said.

Merriken described her beginnings in land management. “I grew up on a dairy farm, but my late husband and his father had experience on tree farms, which got me into it.”

While some landowners live on their land, some do not. Merriken is one of the latter.

She does, however, have a farmer leasing her land. “I have lived on the farm before, but I don’t live there now,” she added. “We have someone who rents it. We have a farmer till the farm and someone who rents the house — just to keep an eye out for things.”

Merriken said they’ve always had problems with people trespassing onto their land. “We even had someone growing marijuana once. That’s why we started the hunting clubs — to keep an eye on the land. Since then, we had to put up gates. With the pine plantations we have fire lanes. We have people riding ATVs, horse riding, and walking on them without our permission. We had to put up trail cams and gates.”

“The tenant is good for that,” she said. “He loves to monitor and ask trespassers to leave. Trash dumping was a problem before we put these gates up. After the gates, that put an end to that.”

She said she doesn’t know what the future holds for her land, though she’s tried her best to improve it and make it a better place during her time. Her husband passed away in recent years, and she promised him she would carry on and not sell the Fairplay Farm property as long as she lives, she said.

Her late husband’s ancestors purchased the first parcel of their family land back in 1680, nearly 100 years before the American Revolution.

“My late husband’s family, they came from England and acquired the Fairplay Farm in Delaware. There was a break of 20 years when they could not own the farm due to the land being passed down to an only child, who was a girl. The state had a law then that women couldn’t own land, so for 20 years the family did not own the farm. As soon as the farm could be purchased by a male family member, the ownership continued.”

She explained, “So that’s why my husband wanted me to keep the land as long as I lived. Their heirs often don’t want to work the land. I don’t know what the solution is to that. It’s a sad situation that heirs don’t want to till the land anymore.”

Merriken has since become engaged to Latty Hoch of Delaware, who shares her conservation values for the land.

Like so many places in the East, Merriken found herself with a deer problem in recent years. She said the large deer population on her land was constantly coming out of her woods to eat the farmer’s cash crops of soybeans and corn. Some people advocated shooting all of the deer there, but she did not want to choose that course of action.

“Everybody’s complaining about the deer, and I thought there’s got to be another answer to it,” she said.

“Wildlife needs a break, and that’s not going on in many parts of the country,” she said. “You have to figure out a balance of harmony and try to work hand in hand. With all of the development in this country, we’re going to have to figure out a way to work with animals and other wildlife, or we’re going to have a problem and lose a valuable resource.”

“Our answer,” she said, “was diversion crops.”

“There was a lot of white-tailed deer damage on the crops. So I met with my fiancé, Latty Hoch, an advocate for conservation and wildlife, and we came up with the idea for diversion crops.” They also had to manage the doe population more closely, she added.

Merriken said they talked with experts and spent two years researching the issue before they put their plan in place. “By using this technique, it helped the deer population, deer hunters, and even the farmer. We had to learn a lot about deer before I implemented this diversion crop program,” she added.

“I took Deer Steward Level I and II classes, certified through the Quality Deer Management Association. I had to go to North Carolina to take the Level II weekend class,” she said. “I brought back all the information I’ve learned, and I’m teaching my hunt club. The hunt club at Fairplay has six hunters, one per 100 acres. On the other farms, I don’t have any more than one hunter for every 40 acres.”

Diversion Crops “How To”

They planted strips of clover 25 feet wide out from the woodland where the soils were the poorest and the trees took up most of the nutrients from the crops. They planted another strip 25 feet wide of alfalfa from the edge of the clover strip to the cash crops, such as soybeans and corn, she said.

“The deer are in the woods, and they’re coming out,” she added. “On the way, they’ll be eating the alfalfa and clover crops. They’ll be nearly full before they get to our cash crops.”

She was delighted with the results.

“It has enhanced the harmony between the landowner, farmer, hunters, wildlife, and the environment,” she added.

“It worked out incredibly well. At first the farmer was not on board. He didn’t want to give up that tillable land. But once we showed him the results of higher yields and lower input costs, he was convinced.”

The diversion crop plan also entailed more forest management. “I have this pine plantation with pines that are 10 years old. I had to do a thinning for growth factor on the pines. A secondary benefit would be to allow more sunlight on the forest floor to encourage plant growth that the deer feed on,” she added.

“These diversion crops can also serve as buffer strips for runoff,” she said. “They’re also great habitat for turkeys and rabbits.”

There was so much interest in her diversion crops strategy that Delaware Secretary of Agriculture Ed Kee became interested in the solution as well, she said. “It’s helping farmers with their bottom line.”

She added, “In the April 2015 issue of the American Agriculturalist magazine, the front page was about our diversion crops strategy,” she said.

Merriken said she enjoys taking part in events. “Last January I had my farmer give a speech at Ag Days in Harrington, Delaware, about this deer diversion project. Another deer management person from the Quality Deer Management Association, Kip Adams, also spoke. It went over very well. And now other farmers in this area are trying this method.”

She said she has always enjoyed sharing her knowledge with others. Years ago, she graduated from the University of Maryland with a degree in teaching. In the summers, she works with the University of Maryland Extension office with the 4-H Program.

She said she is very pleased with the improvements to her land. “Because of the ‘on-site’ education I’ve received, it has benefited the wildlife, the farmer, and the education of the hunters. Now all of the improvements with the forest are going on because of it.”

Owning land gives Merriken a feeling of strength, she said. “I’ve always lived on a farm; it’s part of me. If I didn’t have that, something would be missing from my life.”

Merriken would recommend owning land to others. “I think we have an obligation to the planet to be a steward to the land, wildlife, water, and air,” she said. “If we don’t start now, I’m afraid of the outcome. In the future, it will be a luxury to own a piece of land just to have some solitude.”

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