John & Vicki Riester, Red Wing MN

It’s not difficult to get MFA members John and Vicki Riester to talk about the family, friends, foresters, soil and water conservationists and contractors who have worked with them over the years to improve their 602-acre property near Red Wing, Minnesota, nor is it hard to get them share stories of the many people and organizations who enjoy their land. What is tough is to get them to take credit for their years of work and commitment to improving their tree farm. That will have to change, however, since being recognized as Minnesota’s 2016 Outstanding Tree Farmers of the Year. It’s a spotlight that they’re quick to share with others. 

“So many people have worked out here and helped us over the years, planting or pruning trees, planting wildlife feed plots or installing water retention ponds. They deserve recognition as much as we do, especially our kids, Ryan, Kevin and Katie. And our neighbors, Charlie and Diane Grabow, had started conservation practices before we even bought land from them,” said John. Indeed, the Riester’s property has been a hub of outdoor work and activity for many people from the Red Wing area.

John and Vicki both grew up near Wabasha, meeting in high school. The nine Riester siblings learned conservation practices early in life from their parents, Leonard and Mae, as they pruned and planted in the woodlands surrounding their farm.John considered pursuing a degree in forestry, then attended Rochester Community College until enlisting in the military and serving in Korea for two years. During this same time, Vicki attended Winona State, graduating with a degree in Art in 1975. After the service, John went through the MN State Southeast Technical College’s Refrigeration program, and the couple married in 1975, settled in Red Wing, and started their business, Riester Refrigeration, that same year. The business still occupies a great deal of their time. 

“Our business and our family have always kept us really busy. When we bought the first 160 acres here in 1990, there was even more work to be done, but it was a different kind of work. For us, working on the land out here is recreation,” said John. Originally, the farm was an active, 30-acre orchard business. “We really didn’t have enough time to run both the apple orchard and the refrigeration business,” said Vicki. Over the years, they changed the priorities, eliminated the orchard business, and focused their efforts on purchasing more land and managing it for quality timber, wildlife habitat, farm land and expanding recreational uses. The opportunities and blessings haven’t been lost on their children. “Ryan, Katie and I have been fortunate enough to call this property home.  We’ve used it for recreation, but we’ve also learned a great deal about managing property and the work that it takes to maintain it. We have our parents to thank for that,” said Kevin Riester. 

If you ask John how they came by their knowledge of woodland management, he smiles sheepishly and says, “We were just too busy to attend workshops, even though we wanted to. I had learned some fundamentals from my dad, and after that, we learned by doing, and by getting a lot of advice from Soil and Water and DNR people. I can’t say enough about how knowledgeable they are, and how good they are at what they do. People like Terry Helbig, Chris Fritz, Tom Steger, Larry Westerberg, Bruce Zumbahlen, Mary Perala, Keith Jacobson, Paul Callas, and Beau Kennedy played a big part in teaching us what we needed to know to manage our land.” 

Currently, the Riesters have 230 of their 324 woodland acres certified in the Minnesota Tree Farm program. They rent out an additional 270 tillable acres to Hadler Farms and Balow Farms, who are committed to following good conservation practices. Some of their woodland management practices include an initial planting of black walnut, oaks, and ash interspersed with soft maple to encourage rapid, straight growth, followed by pruning and removal of the maple as the crop trees mature. John also sprays Garlon on the lower 12 inches of box elder trees to eliminate these trees and encourage more desirable species. Removal of buckthorn is planned for this summer.

Touring their farm, one is struck by the beauty of the rolling fields nestled between wooded hills and steep ravines. “Any hard rain we get here is in the Mississippi within an hour, so controlling erosion and water flow is an important focus for us,” said JohnWith guidance from the Goodhue County Soil and Water Conservation District, the Riesters planted grass buffer zones and waterways between fields and forests and have installed twenty water impoundments and ponds to reduce soil erosion. “We really depended on Soil and Water to steer us in the right direction,” said John. “We received some cost share from the state for the impoundments, and we just thought that if we were going to receive this help from the state to improve our land, it was important to share the land with others,” said John. In addition to the many friends and family who enjoy hunting, working and skiing on the farm, Riesters also worked with the Red Wing Snowmobile Club to establish a trail on theirs and neighboring property and encourage outdoor activities and learning by sharing their property with Red Wing High School, the National Wild Turkey Federation, Pheasants Forever, Ducks Unlimited, and the Red wing Environmental Learning Center. It’s about passing on a love for the outdoors to others.

“Our parents and grandparents on both sides of the family really instilled a love of the outdoors in us,” said Vicki. “Living out here, working with our friends and kids, and now our grandkids on the land, teaching them to identify birds and care for the woods and wildlife, I think we’ve been able to pass on that love to them. That’s really the most important thing we can do with the land, is pass on that passion to others.” With grandchildren in the area, that part of the plan seems likely to succeed. “I hope that our kids can enjoy the property like we have. They’re all pretty young yet, but they’ve already helped haul firewood and plant trees. I think that having them help with these things will teach them a good work ethic and help them appreciate the outdoors and the property. My parents learned these values from their parents and they taught us the same. We plan to continue that trend with our children,” said Kevin. 

For their efforts in conservation, woodland and wildlife management, and their willingness to share their land and outdoor experiences with others, the Riesters, (and their family and friends!) embody all that the American Tree Farm program represents. Congratulations, John and Vicki!