Returning Home to Farm, Committed to a Conservation Tradition & Building Soil

After receiving my degree from St. Olaf College last spring, I have returned to the family farm outside Caledonia, Minn. I come home with a deeper understanding that soil rich in organic matter and biota can function more efficiently than biologically deprived soils.

Having grown up on this small southeastern Minnesota beef and crop farm, I have experienced, and have heard from my dad and grandpa about, the many financial ups and downs the farm industry has experienced in the past decade. I know how tough it can be for smaller farmers like my dad and many of our neighbors to make ends meet. They have absolutely no control over the weather, the markets or the price of their inputs. Improving our soil health, however, is not only good for our crops, but it has the potential to positively change our farm financials, and the way in which we farm.

Unlike corn or milk prices, soil health is something that farmers have some control over. My dad and I have talked about what we should be doing to cut costs and improve our soil. Currently, we use conservation tillage, contour strips and split nitrogen applications on our corn. Our crop rotation consists of corn-beans-oats-hay. This helps us to minimize soil and nutrient loss and to maintain soil diversity and resilience. We would especially like to improve soil organic matter, because, despite hauling manure on much of our ground, our soil still tends to be relatively low in organic matter, usually around 3 percent.

After hearing about other farmers’ cover-cropping success, we experimented with incorporating cover crops for the first time last year and plan to do them again next year. With help from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), we already have a plan for next fall to interseed a mix of winter rye, radish and clover in our corn and soybean ground, with hopes of increasing our soil organic matter, fertility and biological life.

I think many farmers are just beginning to realize that their soil’s potential has yet to be tapped. This becomes increasingly important as the market prices continue to stay down while input costs continue to rise, keeping profit margins ever so narrow.

My grandpa was born in 1928 and has been farming his whole life. He has experienced fluctuations in farming financials throughout the last century, and he would be the first to tell you that there is rarely an easy day in farming. He was forced to move to several different homes when growing up in the 1930s, while he and his family tried to farm through easily the toughest era of farm prices that the U.S. has seen in its history.

His father suffered from severe arthritis, so it was up to him and his older brothers to keep the farm afloat and to put food on the table. In 1949, they purchased land, where he and his brothers were finally able to find some success in farming. My grandpa and dad have now raised beef together for the past 40 years, and as recognition for their many years of soil conservation work, in 2012 our family was given Houston County’s Outstanding Conservationist of the Year award. And that’s an important tradition for me to be aware of now that I’m home.

This fall, I have been fortunate to farm with my grandpa and dad for my first fall harvest. This fall is a tough one, with markets hovering in the lowest price ranges seen in the past several decades. Farmers in our area have had yields well above past averages, and many have hit record highs in their fields.

Although this could easily be contributed to the ideal growing conditions we had last summer, we need to also remember that it is ultimately the soil that feeds the crops and provides the conditions for superior yields and profits to be made.

We have also talked about trying no-till, which has been shown to have positive benefits for soil health. However, with the high amounts of clay in our soil, my dad is worried that the fields will not dry out very well in the spring, and we also may be at more risk of having erosion on some of our steeper ground. So, although no-till may not be the next step for our operation, I have found an interest in strip-tilling.

I conducted research on different tillage regimes while I was at school, and I learned a lot from a local farmer, Dave Legvold, who has been strip-tilling for the past 20 years. Dave has found strip-tilling to be very effective for his land, as it allows for precise nutrient applications and just enough tillage to provide a suitable seed bed, all while allowing crop residues from past years to break down and build organic matter. Although no one uses it down in our area, I think strip-tillage could possibly be an effective practice for farmers like my dad.

In conclusion, I think it is more vital than ever that we help each other to better understand how our soil works so that we can continue to improve it. That will decrease land degradation, soil loss and the need for costly external inputs, like synthetic fertilizer.

We are all living in a very unique time. The choices we make today may significantly determine the quality of life that future generations will experience.

Connor McCormick recently helped coordinate Land Stewardship Project soil health meetings in southeastern Minnesota.