I recently attended a workshop funded by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment which caused a jump shift for me. It was held just south of Lawrence, Kansas, and hosted by the Douglas County Conservation District. The title-”Unlock the Secrets in the Soil” might have tipped me off, but I’ve been to lots of conferences with catchy titles and underwhelming information. This one was very different.
From the start the presenters and content were cutting edge and imprecise. Imprecise is the right word here because unlike a lot of farm workshops the information was not given in formulas. Our main presenter, farmer Gail Fuller of Emporia, gave us reasons why no-till, cover crops, and mob grazing were working for him.
He was making a case for biological or even ecological farming, but he didn’t and couldn’t tell the 150 farmers assembled how to do it on their farms. He simply told his story of evolution from growing commodity grains for a feedlot to growing nutritious food products and adding value to them.
As a baseline Fuller quoted the NRCS’s Ray Archuleta’s Four Keys to Healthy Soil, 1. Minimize disturbance 2. Maximize diversity 3. Maintain growing roots all year 4. Keep the soil covered. No-till farming and cover cropping green crops flow naturally as production techniques from the 4 rules. Fuller gave us lots of details about his short and bumpy five year road from one cover crop per year to green plants growing before, during and after every crop he grows. As an educator on the benefits of compost, I was thrilled to hear the need for a wide variety of plants which produce a wide variety of root exudates (underground sugary juices). We were told that the more plants types, the broader the variety of underground biota and the healthier the soil.
Gail showed us pictures of water quality tests that failed to collect runoff from his fields for three years. The researchers eventually quit coming out to check their run off collectors because they became convinced that water does run off of his fields! Fuller mentioned growing bumper crops of corn with 30 pounds of nitrogen per acre. (a very small amount) He’s now finding that his yields are similar when he uses no fertilizer at all. He’s not trying to be an organic farmer, he just doesn’t need fertilizer any more!
With the variety of cover crops he’s growing, it seems natural that Fuller has diversified the crops he grows for sale. He mentioned that he’s getting a premium for his grains from feedlots that are now doing nutritional testing and paying more for nutrient-dense feed. The ultimate value-added move in his farming is returning animals to the land. Beef, lamb and chicken raised on nutritious forage and moved quickly from paddock to paddock greatly increase the productivity of the land and lets the animals do the fertilizing themselves.
The second half of the workshop was a field tour of various cover crop plots. Keith Berns of Green Cover Seed.com reviewed each of the plots and discussed the advantages of the many varieties growing there. The most exciting part of this workshop was the support of mainstream agriculture for these once-radical ideas. I got the feeling that the genie was out of the bottle and that a rapid shift was occurring. While driving in Iowa recently I heard a story that claimed that in 2012 there were 5,000 acres of cover crops in the state and that in 2013 there were 300,000 acres. The mainline commercial farmer/renter of my father’s land has gone from no-till only (and lots of erosion) to planting winter rye as a cover crop the past two years. Farmers may not talk a lot but they’re watching closely. I believe there’s big change in the wind and it’s all good for our soil, water and health.
Full workshop report on Stan’s website.
Article on Gail Fuller in Midwest Producer magazine.
Keith Berns of Green Cover Seed.