When a piece of the prairie is returned to health and the grasses wave tall, brushed by winds sweeping across the hillsides, it’s the... Chuck Wollschlager Family Earns 2023 Soil Conservation Award

When a piece of the prairie is returned to health and the grasses wave tall, brushed by winds sweeping across the hillsides, it’s the stems, leaves, and blooms everyone notices. It’s the grasses and forbs that feed the livestock, provide cover for the wildlife, and fuel imaginations to fill photographers’ lenses.

But those who really know—those who devote their lives and generations of their families to the shared, hard work of reclamation—recognize where the real wonders and miracles of the grasslands lie. They see into the unseen. They appreciate the unappreciated. They recognize that it’s in the roots of the grass where prairie life begins and is sustained. In fact, the people who know are often inextricably a part of those roots.

Such is the case when it comes to the Breyer and Wollschlager families of Strandburg. Branches of these two families have been working, farming, and collaborating together for nearly 65 years on land in Grant County that Dwayne Breyer and his father purchased in 1958. That was just before Dwayne went into the Marine Corps for a two-year hitch. It was a place, Breyer recalls, infested with weeds taller than his tractor when he took it over.

Dwayne’s son, John, says, “Chuck’s [Wollschlager] father-in-law Melvin Swenson and my dad farmed together for over 50 years, I believe, which is a long time, and that’s pretty important, I think. Then it went to Chuck, and Chuck’s been in the picture for 20 years or more. It’s been a lifelong deal between our family and their family and I think that’s pretty neat. We have a few other renters, and we’re close to some of them, too, but nothing like the Breyer and Wollschlager tie.”

When his father-in-law was injured, Chuck Wollschlager took over his long-term tenancy on Dwayne’s farm and the two seemed to click from the outset. Wollschlager said, “For some reason, me and Dwayne were always on the same page, always had the same ideas. Things just flowed between us.”

Breyer had long been on the leading edge of efforts to reclaim the natural diversity of his land. He recollected, “In 1964, I seeded the first 10 acres to native grass. It was the first time anybody up here had tried any of that, and I brought a drill down clear from McIntosh. [260 miles]. Got that little piece into big bluestem, Indiangrass, switchgrass, sideoats grama, little bluestem, and western wheatgrass. Also had some green needlegrass. Well, especially on these gravel slopes where we’d lost so much soil, it really showed up.”

Fast forward nearly six decades to 2022, it was years of hard work, advocacy, and innovation like that which earned Breyer the South Dakota Grasslands Coalition’s “Friend of the Prairie Award” to recognize those working in public roles to ensure stewardship of the state’s natural resources through sustainable and profitable management.

Wollschlager readily grasped Breyer’s baton of sustainable, profitable management when the two began to partner in the 1990s, and since then, more generations of both families have continued to collaborate to grow the prairie grassland roots even deeper into the Grant County soil.

The feeling runs especially strong for Chuck’s 24-year-old son Caden Wollschlager. He said, “We grew up here. This is where we belong. You know, we’ve all bled, sweated, and cried here. Heck, the first place I ever cursed was two miles down the road from here. You know, this is where I grew up. I’ve got scars from these barbed wires. Our relationship is not just landowners and tenants. This is a family. There might not be shared blood, but that’s what this is. I grew up thinking of Dwayne as a grandpa.”

Caden’s older brother Jordan agrees. He said, “I have four children. One of them is actually named Bryer because of the relationship we’ve had with Dwayne and Mary growing up. I want to get my kids out on this farm so they can see and learn the same things I did growing up.”

It’s the roots of any grassland that hold things together when the storms come. The same holds true for partnerships and families. Neither Breyer nor Wollschlager will waste a breath trying to convince you that everything was always smooth sailing, but for the betterment of the business and the land, everything has worked out for the very best.

Wollschlager says, “Dwayne had a lot of the same theories and same ideas and practices that we wanted to develop. And it was just a matter of putting them into a working motion. That took of a lot of talk, a lot of ideas and a lot of hard work. We ended up putting in these paddocks that we now really both believe are a truly good thing!”

Breyer reflects, “We’ve had some rough times—weather, markets, you name it. But Chuck has viewed the positive side on most of it. He’s been a more than equal partner in keeping this thing afloat.”

While the families have lived the remarkable partnership and its results, their relationship has earned admiration of outsiders looking in, as well. Soil Conservationist for the NRCS Dale Thiel works closely with the Breyers and Wollschlagers. He said, “A lot of times when I work with a landowner and tenant, depending on their backgrounds, I sometimes have to fight tooth and nail trying to get something across. But with Dwayne’s background being a conservationist and Chuck’s vision of what he wants done looking to the future, it’s so much easier to convince them a program is the best thing for both their interests.”

NRCS District Conservationist Krecia Leddy said, “The relationship of cooperation between the Breyers and the Wollschlagers is what makes the prairie come to life.”

There is no better way to say it. It’s the roots of the prairie that give it life. In Grant County, South Dakota, Dwayne Breyer, Chuck Wollschlager and their families know it best. They themselves are those all-important roots. In 2023, the Breyer and Wollschlager partnership was featured in the 2023 Grassland Coalition Grassland Planner and an eight-minute YouTube video was also released in February 2023 showcasing the partnership in an effort to promote grassland conservation in South Dakota.

This past spring the Grant County Conservation District and the Grant County NRCS nominated the Charles (Chuck) and Tammy Wollschlager family for the South Dakota Soil Conservation Award for Grant County. The award is recognition by the South Dakota Association of Conservation Districts to recognize a farm or ranch for maintaining and incorporating conservation practices in their operation. Based on Chuck’s stewardship of the land which he credits his dad, Ray Wollschlager for getting his start and with guidance and shared labor from his brother David Wollschlager,  Chuck began farming in the 1980’s. To this day, Chuck and David still help each other in their own operations. Chuck purchased his first no-till drill in the 1990’s and didn’t look back. Soon cover crops followed and he diversified his crop rotations and maintains a herd of breeding cattle. By installing grazing practices Chuck has been able to improve the soil health and resiliency of the land. Chuck has been a proponent of soil health practices working with the Grant County NRCS office through the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) to install an extensive grazing system, adopt nutrient and pest management practices, cover crops, and establish habitat for wildlife and pollinators, along with the decades of no-tilling to improve the soil. Chuck and his family have incorporated all 5 principles of soil health which include: 1) armor the soil; 2) minimize soil disturbance; 3) plant diversity; 4) continual live plants/roots, and 5) integrate livestock. The family is vested in the future of agriculture and being stewards of the land for years to come.

On August 15, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) held a field day near Strandburg, on the land owned by Dwayne Breyer and operated by Chuck Wollschlager to demonstrate and educate newer NRCS staff about engineering and ecological science practices. Technical staff led training on conservation practices including dams and stream crossings, grass waterways and water and sediment control structures, pipelines and tanks, cover crops and soil health, and fencing specifications and cultural resources. Dwayne having been a career Soil Conservation Service employee shared with younger NRCS employees his insight into working with farm and ranch families and how important conservation is to agriculture. Both Dwayne and his son, John, were present at the field day when theGrant County Conservation District and NRCS presented the Chuck Wollschlager family with the 2023 Soil Conservation Award.

Contributed by Krecia Leddy of Milbank. Leddy is a member of the National Resource Conservation Service and the South Dakota Grasslands Coalition. 

Submitted Photos: Eric Landmark, Acting NRCS District Conservationist – Milbank; Dale Thiel, Soil Conservationist; Kelsey (Wollschlager) Van Hill, Lainey Van Hill, Tammy and Chuck Wollschlager, Amy Sis, District Manager Grant County Conservation District; Jordan Wollschlager, and Krecia Leddy, NRCS Management Analyst detailed.
Middle: Chuck Wollschlager.
Bottom: Caden Wollschlager, Chuck Wollschlager, Jordan Wollschlager, Dwayne Breyer and John Breyer.


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