Renewable Farming

How to profit from a revival of your soil health and productivity

Our little 40-acre WakeUP research farm is located close to ground zero for a new “Culture of Conservation.” We can see it greening up the Midwest landscape more each fall. But cover crops are just the beginning of what we hope is a new era.

Nov. 17, 2016    By Jerry Carlson — That realization hit home yesterday when Iowa Learning Farms led a cover-crop field day just a half-mile north of our WakeUP research place, on John Miller’s land farmed by Ted Hamer. (They even had lunch at our favorite on-farm cultural destination, Barn Happy, just up the road from us.)

All around us this fall in Black Hawk County, the usual monotony of fall-chiseled fields is giving way to 60 acres here, 120 acres there of brilliant greens where cover crops are emerging. But the big change is deeper than the landscape, it’s in farmers’ attitudes toward the importance of soil life.

Iowa Learning Farms hosts cover crop field day in our neighborhood

Cover crops are a visible aspect of this concern. Our area has a lot of seed corn fields, so growers have an opportunity to drill cereal rye and other covers early. Covers in those fields are already six inches high and billowing in the wind. On our home plots, tillage radish have pushed 8 to 10 inches deep in the warm, moist October-November Indian Summer.

At the field day, several of the 25 or so farmers shared a wide array of personal results of their cover crop tests. The theme which ran through their commentaries was “improved soil health” — generally meaning a wider spectrum of soil microorganisms, less weed pressure and improved soil structure. In turn, better tilth had shown these farmers that they’re achieving greater moisture infiltration, more water holding capacity, and improved exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide between soil and atmosphere during the growing season.

One grower experimented with turnips as a cover following small grains. That’s common in spring wheat country from Washington to Minnesota, where growers can graze the turnips. Cattle eat the tops, then nuzzle out the turnips and eat them too. 

Right here in our back yard, Dry Run Creek Watershed Coordinator Josh Balk outlined several cost-share possibilities through Iowa Learning Farms.  It was my first personal encounter with Iowa Learning Farms, and I was surprised to hear about the wide range of projects this group is encouraging. This is the highly effective route of innovation by cooperation — not coercion such as the EPA seems to prefer. Established in 2004, the Learning Farms center based at Iowa State University is “building a Culture of Conservation” which could restore soil health with the same kind of farmer-based motivation which powered the original soil conservation “movement” of the 1940s and 1950s.

In that long-ago era, I was a fourth grader at Franklin Grove country school in Page County Iowa. We encouraged our farmer parents by creating a soil conservation “scrapbook” of photos and personal written reports on our parents’ soil-saving efforts such as contour farming, waterways, terraces and tiling. My Dad, Glenn Carlson, and neighbor Martin Head were the neighborhood conservation innovators. School kids pressured their farming parents to join the conservation crusade. I recall the acronym on the cover of the two-inch-thick bound notebook we created: SOIL for “Save Our Iowa Land.” It won the county award for best book.

In the 1940s, grownups still had compelling memories of the 1930s Dust Bowl. That tragedy — partly encouraged by the U.S. government — is still labeled America’s “Greatest ecological disaster.”

Today, alert farmers are discerning the shadows of another and perhaps more insidious ecological disaster: Decimated soil life, loss of soil organic matter and buildup of toxins in the soil. Why, for example, is corn dying weeks earlier than in the “old days” when corn was one of the healthiest crops grown?

Why all the fungal diseases in major crops? Why do so few efforts at enhancing nutrition result in consistent yield benefits?  One of our neighbors shakes his head: “It’s as if the soil just doesn’t have the productive power to respond.” These are questions which alert farmers, and their crop consultants, are asking.

Fortunately, right here in our back yard, we have several intellectual “engines of change” at work to answer those challenges. One of those growing forces is Practical Farmers of Iowa, which we’ve long been a member and occasional research cooperator. The PFI winter conference is Jan. 20-21 at Iowa State University.  We also have the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture based at Iowa State. And our Black Hawk County has a particularly effective NRCS District Conservationist, Shaffer Ridgeway. 

Agribusiness firms sense farmers’ new interest in soil quality restoration, too. Since we began researching with WakeUP and its predecessors in 2008, we’ve seen a burst of new business firms emerge with biologically friendly solutions to rebuilding soil. The trade show at the ACRES conference coming up in Omaha Nov. 30 – Dec. 2 will be heavily populated with those firms. Dean Craine, general manager of AgriEnergy Resources and one of our WakeUP distributors, will be the opening speaker for the ACRES conference. This season, we’ve done field trials showing how WakeUP Spring amplifies the benefits of two of AgriEnergy’s products.

The “Big Five” agrochemical firms have been buying up small “biological” companies, eager to take part in soil renewal by peddling products.  However, we’ve learned that renewing soil life with “Renewable Farming” is a holistic effort, involving the entire biocycle and biosphere of the soil — not just “adding an in-furrow product” or spraying something out there.  Cover crops are an important move; each new cover species invites the return of 10 or more species of underground bacteria, fungi and other soil web organisms.  It takes patience. That was stressed at the field day yesterday just up Union Road from our place. 

Our family is delighted to be right in the middle of this great renewal of soil life and health. It’s what Renewable Farming is all about. You can profit from it too: Just get connected, get enthused!