Last year we bought a small, non-descript farm in Michigan with the goal of transforming it into a hunting and wildlife paradise. We documented the whole process in our Back 40 YouTube series. After two autumns on the farm, we’re ready for the final and most exciting phase of the project: We’re giving the whole damn thing away.
But first, let’s review how we got here.
At the outset of this project, we wanted to find an unremarkable piece of earth in Michigan that was representative of what most hunters might be able to purchase or develop for themselves. It had to be modest, but it also had to have potential.
The 64-acre parcel we found fit the bill perfectly. The Back 40 was previously a commercial corn and soybean farm with six fallow farm fields making up half the acreage. The rest was composed of a large swamp and scattered brushy fencerows.
Since getting started on the property last spring, we’ve been hard at work transforming the landscape. In two subsequent years we’ve seen impressive progress in both wildlife activity and hunting success. Four sets of projects in particular stand out as the most impactful.
Transforming Old Fields
In Year One, we discovered that the old fields covering nearly 50% of the farm were overwhelmed by mare’s tail—an invasive weed that provides almost zero food or cover for wildlife. In 2020, we undertook an expansive set of projects to remove those invasives and replace them with more wildlife-friendly, native plants.
We applied a pre-emergent herbicide treatment in early spring to eliminate mare’s tail, then frost-seeded switchgrass across wide swaths of the fields to provide a new base of year-round cover. Later in the spring, we broadcasted a blend of pollinator-friendly native wildflowers and, just before summer arrived, we planted a series of sorghum strips. The sorghum eventually grew into 14-foot-tall walls of dense green vegetation, providing visual security cover that made deer and other wildlife more comfortable coming into these openings. Finally in August, we planted upwards of 50 evergreen trees to provide woody structure that could be used by birds, small mammals, and deer.
Planting Food Plots
To encourage more consistent daylight deer activity, we put the Can-Am to work and planted more than 3 acres of food plots designed to feed deer, turkeys and other birds, bugs, and small mammals.
We went with a blend of oats, clovers, brassicas, and cereal grains using a no-till approach. We did this to improve soil quality, reduce erosion, and improve water retention. So far, it’s worked.
Nurturing the Honey Hole
The region that stood out most when first walking the property in early 2019 was a ridge system covered in cedars and tall grasses that we eventually dubbed “The Honey Hole.” We discovered that this area is home to a remnant native prairie plant pocket that’s particularly rare and ecologically important in this part of Michigan.
With that in mind, in 2020 we removed patches of invasive shrubs while also running a controlled burn through the prairie. This allowed for expanded growth of the native grass species while preserving the high-quality deer cover this area provides.
New Hunter Setups
Finally, with the goal of sharing the Back 40 with a variety of friends, family, and new hunters, we set up a series of ladder stands and elevated tower blinds in key locations. When paired with nearby habitat improvements, the new sets were key to giving our guest hunters better experiences with great views and shooting opportunities. The blinds were the perfect location for our guests to view the wildlife on the Back 40 and learn how the land supports them.
It was this focus on sharing the Back 40 with others that helped us make the decision about giving away the farm. It has been our hope all along that the Back 40 could be an inspirational and educational resource to new hunters. We wanted to ensure this would continue even after we handed it off.
For this reason, we’ve decided to donate the Back 40 to the National Deer Association (formerly the Quality Deer Management Association). They’re the creators of the nation’s most comprehensive and successful new hunter recruitment program, Field to Fork. The NDA will use this property for mentorship programs that will engage and inspire hundreds of new hunters in the coming years.
We’re thrilled that the Back 40 mission will continue. And with the help of our partners at Can-Am, we’re also excited to announce a new initiative in 2021 that will give new hunters within the MeatEater community an opportunity to visit the Back 40 and participate in these mentorship activities.
Stay tuned for more soon! The next phase of the Back 40 is just beginning.