On a gorgeous October afternoon, Dan Burkhardt is savoring the vistas on his 220-acre farm west of Treloar in southern Warren County.
Trees shimmering in brilliant fall colors, unpicked Norton grapes still ripening on the vines and lush green rolling hills along the Missouri River valley make for some impressive views.
“If this doesn’t make you a believer in land preservation, nothing will.”
Burkhardt and his wife, Connie, are more than believers in preserving the farmland they cherish, they are evangelists. They have channeled their considerable talents and resources in spreading the word on how conservation land trusts can be used to protect the natural beauty of the agricultural and forest areas along the Katy Trail.
It is a cause that is personal to Burkhardt who was raised on a farm in southern Michigan near Ann Arbor. Over time he witnessed what happens when development encroaches on an agricultural area.
“My old neighborhood was ruined,” he explained. “I saw firsthand what can happen in the transition from a rural area to a more urban one. I’m not antidevelopment. Development is a good thing in areas where people want it to happen. This is about educating people how to conserve land for agricultural purposes on a voluntary basis.”
Burkhardt, managing director of Oakwood Management Development LLC, a medical investment company, and a former partner at Edward Jones, splits his time between his farm and his home in St. Louis. But it’s clear where he would rather be on this picture-perfect day.
“Southern Warren County is so remarkable,” Burkhardt said. “It’s relatively undeveloped and undisturbed from when it was first settled. We spend a lot of time here, we just feel lucky to live in a place like this. It (the farm) was family-owned before us by people who were good stewards of the land. We feel we have an obligation to preserve it that way going forward.”
The Burkhardts grow grapes, raise cattle and bale hay and alflfa on the farm. They own Bethlehem Valley Vineyards and produce about 300 cases of wine a year in partnership with Mount Pleasant Winery in Augusta.
“This isn’t a gentleman’s farm,” Burkhardt pointed out. “We like to do the manual labor. We have Norman Hellebusch do the heavy stuff — he’s helped me for the last 20 years — but we work hard at this.”
Their interest in the Katy Trail region was cultivated by Edward (Ted) Jones, Burkhardt’s former business partner and mentor, who gave a sizeable donation to the state of Missouri to help create the Katy Trail.
Inspired by the work of the Marin Agricultural Land Trust outside of San Francisco and the impact it had on preserving an agricultural area so close to a major metropolitan area, the Burkhardts began exploring ways they could launch a similar initiative here that would preserve the farmland along the Katy trail.
That search led to a collaboration with the Ozarks Regional Land Trust, (ORLT), a 27-year-old nonprofit conservation land trust operating throughout the Ozarks region, which includes portions of Missouri, Arkansas, Illinois, Kansas, and Oklahoma.
With the help of ORLT, the Burkhardts launched The Katy Land Trust in 2010 and became the first property owners to join it when they placed 200 acres of their farm in the trust through a conservation agreement.
The agreement allows the Burkhardts to retain the use of the property, they can transfer it to their children or sell it to a third-party, they just can’t develop it. In exchange for placing the property in the trust, the owner can realize some tax benefits.
Burkhardt said there are now seven tracts of land in Warren and St. Charles counties in The Katy Land Trust covering approximately 2,500 acres. He hopes more people will take advantage of the trust after learning more about how it works.
“If you want to develop your land there are a dozen ways to do it and plenty of people who can help you,” Burkhardt explained. “But if you want to make sure your land stays as an agriculture use there is only one way to do it and that is with a conservation easement.”
The Burkhardts have embarked on an awareness campaign for The Katy Land Trust and enlisted the support of other groups and organizations. The trust has its own website, www. katylandtrust.org where people can learn more about how the trust works and they produce a newsletter highlighting the organization’s progress.
Last year the Burkhardts sponsored Run for the Farms, a 5K fun/run event on the Katy Trail in St. Charles.
But much of the educational work the Burkhardt’s do is at the grassroots level. On Sunday, the couple sponsored the second annual family picnic at the Treloar grain elevator where a new wayside panel was unveiled on the elevator marking it as a notable site on the Katy Trail.
Guests were treated to a free concert by The River Rats while the Marthasville Volunteer Fire Department displayed its equipment and sold barbeque and beverages.
The Burkhardts paid for the band and supplied the food.
“We’re not doing this for a payday because there isn’t any,” Burkhardt added. “We love this area and we want to make sure it is protected. That’s why we do it.”
Ted Heisel, a volunteer with The Katy Land Trust said the Burkhardts are motivated by a genuine affection for the Katy Trail region.
“They bring more than money to the many causes they are involved in that promote conservation and the lower Missouri River valley, they bring their time and energy,” he explained.
“Dan doesn’t like to talk about himself,” Connie noted. “What we want is for others to find out about the opportunities that exist for landowners. We know there are a lot of people in southern Warren County who recognize what a special place this is and who want to keep it that way. You know, every property is just one owner away from being developed and possibly changed forever.”
Meanwhile, the Burkhardts see plenty of other opportunities to promote The Katy Land Trust through their work on other conservation pursuits. They are excited about another conversation effort that is just getting started, Magnificent Missouri, which is an organization focused on finding ways to better connect people who live in St. Louis with the countryside. One of the things that group has done is introduce chefs at St. Louis area restaurants to farmers in rural Missouri — including Warren County — who can provide them with locally sourced food.
The organization is also trying to bring the many statewide conservation groups together to raise awareness, money and find common cause on conservation issues.
“What we discovered is that many of these conversation groups had never really been in the same room together,” Connie Burkhardt said. “We wanted to do something that would connect the dots and be sort of an overarching group.”
The couple is also working on a book on the lower Missouri River valley which they plan to release next year.
“We hope what we are doing is causing people to work together to create momentum for all the good things that are happening here. We have a beautiful, historic area less than an hour’s drive from St. Louis. We think that’s worth celebrating, ” Connie added.
That is a theme that Dan Burkhardt reiterates when discussing The Katy Land Trust.
“We are trying to convince people in St. Louis who are already participating in land trusts in other parts of the country that Missouri deserves some of your attention as well,” Burkhardt added. “But our main mission is educational. Land doesn’t protect itself, it up to the owner to determine its fate. We just want people to understand there are options.”