CLC Farmer Success Stories

Farmer Success Stories

One of the best ways to understand what continuous living cover crops and cropping systems can look like on the landscape is to hear directly from the farmers themselves. Read on for several CLC success stories from the farmer’s perspective. 

Early Adopter of a Perennial Grain in North Dakota: John Luoma, March 2022

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Hilda Visto Luoma (mother) and John Luoma. Credit: F. Luoma

Remembering his youthful days in Oakes, North Dakota when the horse-drawn Overshot Haystacker and kerosene lamps were replaced with new hydraulic mechanics and electricity on the farm, John Luoma has always been inspired by innovation and new inventions. “In 1947, when electricity came to the farm, my mother bought new appliances – a refrigerator, a freezer and a stove-range. We had running water in the house and it seemed like things started to improve.”

This intrigue for innovation led him to a career as an engineer and a successful entrepreneur, which included designing and manufacturing the Rounder, a hydrostatic driven skid steer loader, as well as the first source separated curbside recycling system in the Twin Cities. And it is this same intrigue that has Luoma now returning to the land andJohn Luoma, Uncle Everett Visto, visiting while on leave from WWII with Frank Luoma. (father). Credit: H. Luoma planning to plant 110 acres with a continuous living cover (CLC) perennial in the summer of 2022.

Why?

With 600 acres coming up for renewal in a Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) contract, John’s part of a century-old farm, coupled with the neighbor who has farmed an additional 110 acres ready to retire, Luoma’s been considering his options. “I decided to get involved and find out what’s new in agriculture,” he said.

History on the Land

The Luoma family has enjoyed hunting and recreating on their 1,100 acres of land during annual get-togethers since his mother enrolled the farm into CRP 35 years ago. A good half of John’s land will stay in CRP. In earlier farming years, his grandparents and parents raised beef, chicken, and cattle, followed by successful stands of flax and alfalfa. The question for him is what kind of agriculture is worth bringing back into production on the land?

What Will Work on the Land

Frank Luoma (father) swathing a bumper crop of flax in Oakes, ND, 1962. Credit: H. LuomaTo answer that, he steps back to look at the historical picture, including what has and has not worked on the land. With the Dakota Lake aquifer being so close to the surface in Dickey County, ND, many farms over the years have dug wells and installed irrigation systems to profitably grow corn, soy, potatoes, and onions. Irrigated corn has yielded up to 300 bushels per acre and corn grown on dry land has yielded 170-190 bushels per acre, he reports. John’s land is only partially accessible to the aquifer.

Moreover, he’s aware of the loss of topsoil and erosion commonly seen without cover crops on the ground. Here, he explains, many farmers don’t plant cover crops because they believe there’s not enough time to do so between annual crop seasons. “During the spring there is sand in the air; a lot of topsoil blows away until the corn and soybeans grow.” It reminds him of the conditions his grandparents and parents endured during the Dust Bowl. “We have loamy sand. It blew terribly in the 30s, 50s and last Spring, moving topsoil out of town and creating sand drifts.” Keenly aware that farming can be a risky business, Luoma’s taking a different route.

“I thought maybe perennial crops would be an answer for me. I remember the alfalfa. I remember the pastures, how well they grew. I know how well the Brome grass grows on the CRP,” he said.

Specifically, John Luoma’s interested in planting an intermediate wheatgrass known as Kernza®, a perennial grain crop with a beard-like root structure as deep as 8-12 feet. It offers him the function of a cover crop, a perennial grain and a perennial forage, which will eventually serve as hay for his neighbor’s livestock. Kernza is relatively new in North Dakota.

Why Long-Rooted Perennials?

Continuous living cover (CLC) prevents erosion by covering the ground year-round with living plants and roots. CLC crops and cropping systems can also add nutritional benefits to the soil, which can reduce the demand for fertilizers and pesticides, which are costly for farmers and can pollute surface and ground waters. Perennial crops have especially long, dense root masses that help infiltrate and retain water, which will be advantageous for Luoma’s farm. Currently, Kernza produces a harvestable grain crop for two to three years reliably, eliminating tillage during that time. Agronomists and plant breeders, in collaboration with farmers, continue to work on extending the harvestable yield beyond three years. The perennial nature of Kernza minimizes time and expense related to tillage and inputs, while increasing soil health and generating diverse revenue streams for the farmer. Further, in some environments, these roots may reduce net greenhouse gas emissions by storing carbon. These benefits accrue whether Kernza is used as a perennial forage or a perennial grain. The farmer’s choice to produce farm products using CLC provides benefits not only on-farm, but also to society and the consumer in the form of ecosystem services and other positive social and economic outcomes.

Diving Deeper Into Kernza

John Luoma in Kernza Field, Madison, MN, 2021. Credit: T. Walkington - Variety Trials at Williston Research Extension Center, Williston, ND, 2020. Credit: C. KeeneResearch online with Green Lands Blue Waters has taught John Luoma more about the CLC concept. It’s one that incorporates perennial crops and sequences annual crops into cropping systems to maintain year-round living vegetative cover above ground and living roots below ground. CLC affords Luoma an opportunity to establish new crops on his landscape and benefit through new agricultural products for the marketplace. After learning about five different CLC approaches, as described by Green Lands Blue Waters, he’s most interested in the perennial grain and perennial forage strategies.

“Kernza is the only commercially viable new perennial crop ready to go,” he states. The perennial grain was developed and trademarked by The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, which granted Luoma permission to grow it, specifically the TLIC5 line of Kernza. The first commercially available seed variety of Kernza came out of the University of Minnesota and is called MN-Clearwater. He will grow both.

A suite of additional perennial crops is in the research and development wings at The Land Institute and University of Minnesota’s Forever Green Initiative. Both institutions work in collaboration to accomplish new perennial and winter annual cropping systems for planting across the landscape.

Mentors and Technical Assistance

Carmen Fernholz at Kernza Field Day in Madison, MN. Credit: K. HakansonThe Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) referred John to Carmen Fernholz as a mentor for technical assistance. Carmen is coaching him on developing a farm plan that meets his dual-purpose objectives with Kernza for perennial grain and forage. An organic farmer who has grown Kernza for eleven years in western Minnesota, Fernholz works with many farmers who are interested in growing it. His involvement originated years ago when friend, Professor Don Wyse from the University of Minnesota, asked Fernholz if he would be interested in trying to grow Kernza in 2011. He was. And now he’s the President of Perennial Promise Growers Cooperative (PPGC), a new co-op to support Kernza growers. PPGC collaborates with commercialization team members at the University of Minnesota’s Forever Green Initiative and The Land Institute to scale up efforts and advance this type of cropping system. As a farmer, Luoma is grateful for the educational webinars, supportive policy development, and shared resources that help connect him to other farmers and interested businesses.

Luoma Farm Plan

John’s neighbor, a young cattle farmer, will partner with him in this endeavor and manage 110 acres. Their farm plan begins with planting 40 acres of Kernza on prior corn land and 70 acres of hay millet. That Kernza will be harvested for hay in the fall of 2022 at an estimated 4 to 6 tons per acre. After the hay millet is harvested, they’ll plant another 70 acres of Kernza in mid-August, which should be harvestable as a grain the following summer. At that point in the season, Kernza can continue to grow as a forage through November.

Government Cost Share Support for Planting Kernza

Meanwhile, Luoma’s discovered the challenge of navigating cost share support for planting Kernza through local, state, and federal government programs. He has applied for government support through North Dakota’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), but expects to be only partially reimbursed for the crop rotation and nutrition management aspects of his efforts. To date, Kernza does not qualify for federal crop insurance.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service hosts two relevant programs with funding pools that could serve as a home for planting Kernza: the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). These programs focus on improving water quality, soil health, and address many agricultural resource concerns. Each state currently ranks and allocates their EQIP and CSP support of practices, individually, based on input from local working groups, farmer demand, and technical committees.

A more cohesive regional strategy is needed to navigate NRCS practice prioritization in order to optimize more support for planting CLC farming systems, including Kernza, in the Upper Mississippi River Basin.

The Perennial Promise Growers Cooperative and the Developing Market

As an entrepreneur who brings a long record of success, Luoma still considers growing Kernza to be a smart business investment in North Dakota. This is primarily due to the new cooperative. PPGC offers him marketing support and analysis, pricing structure, and access to current research. “This is a business venture, as I see it,” says Luoma. “I would not consider doing this without that co-op.” He remembers the vital role that the supply co-operative in Oakes played for his father, who was on the board and one of its founding members.

“Our marketing support is probably the number one reason why most of the growers are becoming part of the co-op,” says Fernholz. “If they are going to grow the crop, they need to be relatively assured that there will in fact be a market.” In its early stage of development, the Kernza market serves a niche mix of businesses. A newly hired marketer for the co-op, Alex Heilman, of Mad AG, is making inroads for the Kernza market with increased corporate interest along with smaller entrepreneurial customers. Director of Marketing Development for the Forever Green Initiative, Connie Carlson, points to the University of Minnesota’s unique platform of its own commercialization team actively introducing this new crop and building out its markets. “It’s been fifty years since the last launch of a major crop. The soybean was the last one,” she said. She continues to identify potential Kernza buyers and end users.

The Demand

Naan bread made with Kernza by Artisan Naan. Credit: K. Hakanson - Kernza Perennial Grains. 2021. Credit: K. HakansonCurrent demand for Kernza includes Patagonia Provisions’ new organic Kernza® Fusilli pasta, a pale ale, an IPA and a Belgian-style Wit beer named Long Root® by Patagonia and Hopworks Urban Brewery in Oregon; a variety of Kernza ales by Bang Brewing and Dual Citizen in St. Paul; and a Regenerative Whole Grain Flour blend, Perennial Pancake and Waffle Mix, and 100% Kernza flour from Perennial Pantry. General Mill’s Cascadian Farms Organic Climate Smart Kernza Grains Cereal is available at select Whole Foods stores across the country including those in Madison, Wisconsin, St. Paul, Minnesota, Columbus, Ohio, and Bend, Oregon. A St. Cloud, Minnesota baker selling her Kernza naan and pita pockets through Lunds Byerly stores in the Twin Cities under the name Artisan Naan, has plans to expand. Interest is on the rise among brewers, distillers, bakeries, restaurants, and school districts as well.

Mad Ag and research firm, Informa, are working on market analysis reports for the co-op to inform members’ understanding of Kernza supply and demand and project revenues in several scenarios.

Researcher Relationships with PPGC Growers

Growers in several states plan to work together with agronomists and plant breeders from the University of Minnesota in a mutually beneficial way. “They can give us new varietal types and we can feed back to them agronomic challenges and other data that we find while growing the crop in our fields,” explains Fernholz. This type of support is welcomed by John Luoma.

Additional agronomic support for Luoma will come from the North Dakota State University Extension Agronomist, Dr. Clair Keene. During her time at the Williston Research Extension Center (WREC), she started a small Kernza seed increase in partnership with The Land Institute, working with Tessa Peters, Director of Crop Stewardship, to obtain licensing. Luoma will purchase this seed from WREC. For the past three years, Keene has managed Kernza variety trials at Williston with lines from The Land Institute and the University of Minnesota. “These trials have been a good opportunity to see how Kernza performs in western North Dakota,” said Keene.

Membership in PPGC Grows

Dr. Jacob Jungers, Dept. of Agronomy and Plant Genetics, Univ. of MN; Dr. Jessica Gutknecht, Department of Soil, Water & Climate, Univ. of MN; Kernza field day. Credit: K. HakansonSince the Perennial Promise Growers Cooperative incorporated last summer, twenty-eight members have joined and an estimated eighteen growers expect to be harvesting Kernza by this fall on approximately 1,500 acres. With the current interest, growers could potentially double by the end of 2022, reports Fernholz. Future avenues of support from the co-op include potentially licensing the seed and exclusive varieties, supply management, and bringing post-harvest infrastructure online for the de-hulling, sorting, and cleaning grain. Should additional autonomous co-ops like PPGC develop across the country, the co-creation of a marketing agency in common would facilitate supportive communications among them, including establishing similar pricing, projects Fernholz. Nationwide, nearly 4,000 acres of Kernza have been planted to date.

 

Pricing

In today’s scenario as a PPGC grower of Kernza, pricing matters. Due diligence is being taken to make sure these growers can actually thrive. Early adopters, like Luoma in North Dakota, who are taking on risk to create favorable outcomes for rebuilding the soil, restoring the quality of public waters, and storing carbon, also need to make a return on their investment. The costs of the land, the machinery, the labor, and the seed contribute to their variable and fixed costs, per Fernholz, but most importantly, the value of growing Kernza is the ecosystem services the farmer is contributing through this choice. What is the value of stored carbon, cleaner water, healthy soil to the society and to the consumer? He believes these values should be reflected in its price.

Determining the price is a work in progress, said Fernholz, and the subject of several research projects underway. The coming years will be critical for price stabilization, which will be informed by growers, buyers, and consumers revealing their willingness to pay.

Kernza’s yield in usable pounds – meaning grains ready to be added to food after dehulling, separating the chaff, sorting out broken kernels, and cleaning – is estimated at 250-400 pounds per acre currently. According to Colin Cureton, Director of Adoption and Scaling with the Forever Green Initiative, prices since the 2021 harvest for bulk food grade grain have been $2.50-$5.50 per pound. Fernholz shared that PPGC’s current price range is $4.00-6.50 per pound, depending on production system.

Luoma believes he’ll have plenty of forage to more than cover his costs, whether the grain succeeds or not. He wants this to do well, however, particularly for his neighbors. His new partner has two young sons, aged 12 and 14, who recently told their parents they are interested in being farmers. Another nearby farmer in the county will rent Luoma a modern 7-½” air-seeder. After swathing and drying the Kernza, another neighbor will combine the crop with his 45-foot header combine. When it’s time to cut it down and bale the straw, another neighbor who has a custom farming service will help them cut their 2 tons per acre of straw. This straw will either serve as feed for his partner’s cattle or will be sold. Not one of these neighbors is familiar with Kernza, but Luoma can see how its value might just ripple through the farming community around his home town of Oakes, North Dakota.

Innovating for the Future on the Land

Jan Luoma attending a Kernza field day in Southern Minnesota.Through the presence of the co-op in his youth, John learned about issues related to all aspects of farming. He fondly recalls the social life enjoyed by co-op members. Through his mother’s encouragement to pursue an education, he left his hometown roots for new cultural experiences in other countries – first as a foreign exchange student on two farms in England, followed by membership in the initial class of President John F. Kennedy’s Peace Corps. He was the first in his family to graduate from high school and obtain higher education degrees in engineering and business. Opportunities followed resulting from hard work and his willingness to take on risk. Today, he is drawn to his home roots, honoring his family’s legacy of farming and affirming his ties to the land and belief in its future. Luoma believes that planting perennial crops like Kernza is the way forward for him and for his neighbors. He hopes to expand these efforts in the future.

Author Anne Queenan, Queenan Productions

anne@queenanproductions.com

Author Anne Queenan, Queenan ProductionsAnne Queenan writes and produces stories that inform and engage on subjects interweaving land stewardship, agriculture, science, clean water, and collaborative communities. She brings to life sweet spots of hope and curiosity with real life scenarios sharpened through her expertise in public broadcasting and communications. Her social work training amplifies the human voice and points to interconnections where systemic change can happen. She has written, produced, and developed documentary short videos, articles, and communications strategy for foundations, environmental nonprofits, state agencies, educational institutions, and soil and water conservation districts. She has also co-led and organized steering and advisory committees for cocreative outreach efforts in water quality with diverse partners. Queenan is also a photographer, videographer, and drone operator. She and her dog, Coda, live on the Mississippi River in the Driftless Area, where she enjoys paddling, birding, and hiking through the Bluffs.


Success Stories Backed by Research

This series provides examples of farmers across the Upper Midwest successfully growing continuous living cover crops. Learn more about these farms while also hearing about the benefits and opportunities provided by the practices implemented on each farm through a “conservation that pays” approach. Links are provided to practitioner resources and science supporting the practices.

Bent Gate Farms – Stanton, IA - GLBW, Mar 2022

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Mark and Melanie Peterson purchased their farm in 2003 with a vision to leave it better than they found it. Cover cropping and animal integration helped them boost soil organic matter, water holding capacity, and corn yields on their 500 acres, where they grow conventional corn, soybeans, wheat, oats, and rye, and a rotation of single- and multi-species cover crops.

When Mark and Melanie bought their farm, most of the land was in good shape, but one piece had “the lowest fertility level our agronomist had seen in any piece of ground,” Mark recalls, with a corn suitability rating in the 40s. They realized drastic change was needed.

Interested in organic farming, Mark went to a presentation by Practical Farmers of Iowa. While he didn’t go organic, PFI was instrumental in his adoption of cover crops.

Adding small grains to the rotation was key: they are harvested in July, much earlier than corn and soybeans, allowing for the longer growing season that a multi-species cover crop needed.

Mark intended to no-till a crop into the cover crop the next spring, but it grew so well that they decided to bring in a neighbor’s cattle. Now, they graze all of the multi-species cover crop, with manure providing valuable fertility. Mark and Melanie planted no-till corn the next spring, followed by no-till soybeans, and corn again the following year.

Benefits and Opportunities

The second corn crop came in at slightly over 200 bushels per acre. “I was gobsmacked, to say the least,” says Mark. “It was unbelievable.”

In less than 10 years, they saw over a 1% increase in organic matter, representing 20 pounds of nitrogen and an extra inch of water-holding capacity. “That’s a benefit in two ways,” Mark notes. “When we have one of these almost-annual ‘hundred-year floods,’ the ground will absorb an extra inch,” and when it gets dry, “that’s an extra inch of water you’re holding onto.”

“It does take some commitment,” Mark explains. “The multi-species cover crop rotation is not a year that you’re going to make a lot of money.” Local partnerships make it possible.“We’ve got a market for wheat 50 miles away; I can market my oats right out of the field to cattle producers; and we sell the rye as cover crop seed,” he says.Working with their cattle producer neighbor also provided some grazing income and help with fences, and Mark and Melanie continue to get inspiration and information from fellow farmers through PFI.

Conservation that Pays

Though there are complexities with a multi-species, animal integrated system, these practices build resilience. Extra organic matter helps protect against too much or too little water, and cover crops cool the soil in hot weather. The diverse rotation also helps protect against price fluctuations; cereal rye cuts down on weed pressure without the cost of herbicides, and soybeans add nitrogen. Mark notes,

“Anything a person can do to cut down on costs, whether adding fertility or being able to cut down on weed control, you can make yourself more financially resilient too.”

Practitioner Resources

Science Supporting the Practices

Cover crops increase organic matter slowly but steadily over time (Poeplau and Don 2015).

An analysis of 28 studies also found that non-leguminous cover crops can halve nitrate leaching compared to no cover crop (Thapa et al. 2018).

Properly managed winter cover crops (WCCs) don’t reduce subsequent corn yields. A review of 65 studies found that grass had no yield impact and legumes boosted yields up to 30% in low-input and no-till systems. Mixed WCCs increased corn yields by 30% when terminated 0-6 days before corn planting (Marcillo and Miguez 2017).

An analysis of 53 studies showed that cover crops, especially grasses and fall-seeded crops, help prevent weed pressure (Osipitan et al. 2019).

Crop-livestock integration can improve nutrient cycling, reduce the need for fertilizers and machinery, optimize local systems of manure and biomass exchange, and potentially increase profit margins (Martin et al. 2016)

This story is based on information from an interview originally conducted by Siena Chrisman as a part of the GLBW CLC Farmer Series.

Grand View Farm and Ranch – Belmond, IA - GLBW, Mar 2022

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On a farm that has been in the family since 1914, Troy and Beth Severson manage a cow-calf herd and raise corn, soybeans, and hay on the rolling hills of Northern Iowa. Their son Knute and daughter-in-law Amanda purchase the steers, finish them on grass, and market them through their direct-to-consumer business, Grand View Beef.

Since 1996, Troy and Beth have been raising Horned Herefords, a long-haired breed that thrives in the cold but sheds to stay comfortable in the summer. In 2017, their son Knute and his wife Amanda returned to the farm, partnering with Troy and Beth to finish and market the steers, which are 100% grass-fed and pasture-raised.

Amanda and Knute use an intensive rotation strategy for the steers, moving them frequently between two acre paddocks. Troy and Beth rotate the calf-cow herd regularly, weekly to monthly depending on the landlord’s specifications.

Cattle spend the majority of their lives on pasture, and eat grass, hay, and alfalfa through the winter. Calves spend the first eight months of their lives alongside their mothers, too.

The Seversons reduce fossil fuel inputs into their operation in a unique way: a pair of Belgian draft horses haul hay most of the year, even in snow. Occasionally Troy uses a tractor, but he much prefers using the horses, calling it the highlight of his day regardless of weather. Riders on horseback bring the cattle back from summer pastures, reducing the stress caused by moving with trailers.

Benefits and Opportunities

With these practices, the Seversons are able to offer beef that is both more sustainable and more ethical. The family has noticeddramatically improved soil fertility as a result of the grazing rotations, and there are quality of life benefits, too

Grazing is “good for the soil, good for the environment, good for the soul,” Troy says. He finds raising animals more enjoyable than crops alone. Beth notes that it’s “labor intensive, but rewarding.” They enjoy getting outside, being active, and taking care of livestock.

Finding a way to support the next generation on the farm is a challenge for many operations, but working together to raise cattle and direct market the beef has facilitated a profitable, sustainable operation. Having a buyer for their cattle through their son and daughter-in-law has been really helpful for Troy and Beth, taking the guesswork out of marketing, and Amanda and Knute have a consistent supply of local, high-quality beef.

Conservation that Pays

Amanda and Knute found that prices were better for grass-fed beef, and they were impressed with the flavor. Improved herdhealth also led to lower vet costs. Using horses instead of trailers to move cattle in the fall helps reduce stress on the animals, keeping them calm and healthy and ensuring that the meat is tender and flavorful.

Practitioner Resources

Science Supporting the Practices

Managed grazing can improve environmental quality – including soil health and higher GHG sequestration – and allow cattle a less-stressful, healthier life. It may also support the production of meat higher in omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidant compounds derived from the plants consumed (Provenza et al. 2019).

Well-managed grazing systems can improve cattle health, reduce stress levels, and support the expression of their natural, healthy behaviors. Nutritionally appropriate pastures and stocking densities can also support higher antioxidant intake and boost immune function compared to confinement systems (Nakajima and Yayota 2019).

Regenerative grazing practices can support farm financial health through reduced input costs and improved soil and herd health. Pastures can also provide ecosystem services: bird and pollinator habitat, improved water infiltration, and reduced erosion and downstream flood risk. In addition, it offers a way to diversify and add a revenue stream, and a point of entry for younger generations (Spratt et al. 2021).

This fact sheet is a joint effort based on the Reintegrating Grazing Ruminants in Row Crop Country project by George Boody, with funding from the Endowed Chair in Agricultural Systems through Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture, College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences. The project features ten videos highlighting farmers who graze continuous living cover.

Hammer & Kavazanjian Farms – South Beaver Dam, WI - GLBW, Mar 2022

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Prairie strips are small areas of diverse native grasses and wildflowers incorporated into row crop fields. Their deep roots hold soil in place even in heavy rain, helping to protect soil and water quality while providing habitat for birds and pollinators. Prairie strips can be situated within fields or as filter strips at the edges, with the width adjusted based on slope and expected amount of water flow.

Nancy Kavazanjian and her husband Charles Hammer grow corn, soybean, winter wheat and barley on 1900 acres in south-central Wisconsin. While no-till and strip-tillage had helped reduce erosion on their rolling farmland, they were still seeing significant soil loss. Encouraged by their crop consultant Bill Stangel, they decided to try prairie strips.

Working with a Natural Resource Conservation Service engineer, Nancy, Charles, and Bill planned the strips and laid out contour lines, placed to maximize erosion control. The Fish and Wildlife Service office at Horicon Marsh provided a seed mix prescription. GPS-guided planters and sprayers with individual row controls made it feasible. Nancy explains:

The main goal is to stop erosion and add some pollinator habitat. The rest of the land, you want to farm – you don’t want to worry about whether you’re going to get in that area, or mess up your corn rows, or have to do point rows. The satellite guided tractor was hugely helpful.”

Establishment took some time. The first year, “it looked terrible,” says Nancy. But by the third year, they saw bright, beautiful flowers after a spring rain.

Benefits and Opportunities

By converting just 10% of land to prairie, farmers can reduce sediment loss by up to 95% and nitrogen and phosphorus runoff losses by 85 to 90%. Thehabitat they create supports pollinators and insect predators that can help reduce insect pests of corn and soy.

“People don’t realize there is a lot of help out there,” Nancy says. “Don’t hesitate to reach out to NRCS – they want to help!” The Sand County Foundation and local watershed groups are also good resources.

Conservation that Pays

Prairie strips are more economical than people might think. “You don’t have to spend a lot of money on wildflowers,” Nancy explains. Perennial grasses offer excellent soil and pollinator benefits at a lower cost, and NRCS agents are often able to help plan a seed mix for free.

The largest cost associated with prairie strip implementation is not planting or maintenance, but the loss of income on land not planted to crops. Losses can be mitigated by converting lower-yielding land, such as low-lying, wet areas. And, prairie strips don’t affect yield in adjacent rows.

Overall, they are one of the most affordable conservation options and are eligible for federal and state cost-share programs including the Conservation Reserve Program.

Prairie strips are one of many strategies farmers can use to ensure that their land remains healthy and productive for generations. The cost of implementation is small relative to the long-term benefits they provide in erosion control, water quality, and pollinator biodiversity.

Practitioner Resources

  • ISU-based STRIPS project: a leader in prairie strip research and extension.
  • Local NRCS offices: resources for technical support and help accessing financial support options
  • Sand County Foundation: info on prairie strips and videos with WI farmers who implemented them
  • SnapPlus: A nutrient management planning software tool to help optimize on-farm nutrients, minimize losses, and evaluate options including prairie strips

Science Supporting the Practices

Prairie strips added to row crop fields increase pollinator and bird abundance, reduce water runoff, and increase soil and nutrient retention, benefits that are desired by both farm and non-farm populations (Schulte et al. 2017).

Prairie strips address agricultural related environmental impacts that matter to people: STRIPS researchers found that Iowans highly valued water quality, flood control, and wildlife habitat, facets that are all addressed by strips.

Prairie strips increase the availability of forage for bees and provide better nutrition (Zhang et al. 2021), and support larger bee colonies (Schulte Moore et al. 2020).

Lincoln & Pipestone WHPA – Lincoln and Pipestone Counties, MN - GLBW, Mar 2022

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High nitrate levels in aquifers under agricultural land have lead to high treatment costs, well closures, and health risks for rural communities. Kernza® perennial grain provides a way to profitably protect drinking water sources, offering a cropping system that can be planted on Wellhead Protection Areas (WHPA) without contaminating drinking water.

The Lincoln-Pipestone Rural Water System purchased highly vulnerable land in 2016 that sits over an aquifer supplying drinking water to 36 municipalities. The goal: prevent nitrate from row crop fertilizer from reaching the aquifer to avoid the treatment costs and health risks of nitrate contamination. The EPA limit for nitrate in drinking water is 10 ppm, but health risks increase even at 5 ppm.

Options for vulnerable land have been limited for producers: leave it fallow or put it into the Conservation Reserve Program, but lose income, or keep it in production but risk nitrate contamination. Finally, a new crop offers promise for making a profit without threatening drinking water sources.

Kernza® was developed from forage varieties of intermediate wheatgrass by selecting for large seed size, non-shattering, and other traits. The result is a dual-use grain and forage crop that can stay in the ground for three years or more, providing soil and water quality benefits. Data has already been collected showing Kernza’s effectiveness in preventing nitrate leaching, and farmers, city planners, and water associations are excited to plant Kernza and be a part of the solution to nitrate contamination.

In the Fall of 2017, 54 acres of Kernza were planted on the Lincoln-Pipestone land.

Benefits and Opportunities

In August 2018, nearly 10,000 pounds of Kernza grain was harvested by local farmers, and the seed was sold to The Land Institute for testing and distribution. In 2019, soil water sampled from the field had close to 0 ppm nitrate – extremely low relative to typical levels under corn and soy, which can be as high as 28 ppm.

Since it can be harvested for three years without re-planting, Kernza cuts down on the need for tillage, and with its dense stands and natural resistance to most wheat diseases, it requires fewer pesticides and herbicides than most annual row crops.

Photos by Evelyn Reilly

It’s still early in the crop’s development – breeding work is ongoing, supply chains are being established, and harvesting techniques are being refined with input from multiple stakeholders.

In Summer 2018, lead researcher Dr. Jake Jungers of the University of Minnesota, Lincoln-Pipestone Rural Water General Manager Jason Overby, farmer and LPRW board member Randy Kraus, and Laura DeBeer of the Pipestone County Soil and Water Conservation District met to plan the Kernza harvest, figuring out which type of machinery to use, how to dry the grain, and who could process the seed.

This collaborative effort created technical knowledge that could be shared with other Kernza growers, ensuring that the crop continues to be developed in a way that meets farmer and landowner needs.

Conservation that Pays

What sets Kernza apart from many other conservation strategies is that from the beginning, its development has focused on creating a marketable solution: a crop that reduces nitrate in groundwater while fitting into a farmer’s business plans. The University of Minnesota’s Forever Green Initiative has been instrumental in not just agronomic research, but supply chain and market development, too.

Those investments are paying off. Connections between farmers and grain processors – with the help of market and supply chain development staff like Forever Green’s Connie Carlson and Colin Cureton – have made it possible to sell Kernza to food manufacturers, including Bang Brewing, Patagonia Provisions, Perennial Pantry, General Mills, and more! Demand continues to grow, helping make Kernza an environmentally and economically sustainable solution.

Resources

Science Supporting the Practices

Nitrate levels in the soil water at the Lincoln-Pipestone site were less than 1 ppm throughout the season. This is well below the safe drinking water limit of 10 ppm, and indicates that Kernza plantings help protect vulnerable drinking water sources (Reilly et al. in prep).

With long roots and long growing seasons, perennials help maintain soil carbon and nitrogen stocks and support pollinators (Glover et al. 2010). A study in Michigan found that Kernza reduced nitrate concentrations in soil water by up to 86% compared to annual wheat (Culman et. al 2013).

A study on loam soils in Minnesota found that fertilized Kernza reduced nitrate leaching by 95% compared to fertilized corn (Jungers et al. 2019).

In sandy soils in Central Minnesota, fertilized Kernza reduced average nitrate concentrations in soil water by 77 to 96% compared to fertilized corn and unfertilized soybean (Reilly et al. in prep.).


Farmer Success Using NRCS Programs for CLC

This series provides examples of farmers using Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) programs to implement continuous living cover on farm. Learn how these farmers are using EQIP, CRP and CSP to support perennial pasture, livestock, agroforestry, shelterbelts, perennial buffers and more.

Case Study: Zumwalt Acres: An Intersection of Farming, Faith, and Applied Science through Youth-Led Agroforestry in Central Illinois – GLBW, Jul 2021

Download a PDF of this writing here

This last year and a half, the pandemic has forced many of us to take a full-stop, and re-evaluate what really matters in life. Gavi and Remi Welbel, 21-year-old twin sisters, took pause when they learned their plans for resuming undergraduate classes were limited to online learning. For Gavi, this meant a break from studying mechanical engineering and earth plant science at Yale University. For Remi, it was neuroscience and dance at Middlebury College. After recalibrating and doing quite a bit of research, they forged a different path. Honoring their family, their roots in Judaism, and their desire to work towards a more regenerative agriculture, agroforestry plans were initiated to restore the soil and draw down carbon on the sixth generation family farm – one that had been growing corn and soybeans for more than six decades.

This is known today as Zumwalt Acres, a new agroforestry farm community and demonstration site in partnership with the regional Savanna Institute and Chicago-based Delta Institute. Gavi and Remi moved an hour and a half south of their home in Chicago to the family farm in Sheldon, Illinois, to begin the transition to agroforestry. Prior to moving, they succeeded in securing some supportive grants. Apprenticeships were established attracting young peers with similar interests and Jewish values, who joined them and helped build a sense of community. Eight to ten competent apprentices were recruited to rotate with each season addressing a variety of organized tasks. These are pioneers of a youth-led initiative to make farming what they want it to be.

Zumwalt Acres: An Intersection of Farming, Faith, and Applied Science through Youth-Led Agroforestry in Central Illinois GLBW Case Study by Anne Queenan and Linda Meschke Planting 1 of 2,000 trees! Credit: Gavi Welbel 2 As the next generation of farmers, Gavi and Remi will help their father, J.R. Zumwalt, bring his long-held dream to life. For years, he watched his family’s farm transition from a small-scale diversified farm to industrialized monoculture agriculture. Hoping to return it to its perennial roots, he wrote to his father forty years ago, “We could create a system of agriculture that would lay the groundwork for generations; a system that would breathe life and health back into this ground.”

As second-generation maternal descendants of holocaust survivors, Gavi and Remi have learned from their grandparents how to react to adversity with hope. Their mother has also modeled strength and perseverance throughout the COVID-19 crisis as the director of the infectious unit in Chicago’s largest public hospital, John H. Stroger, Jr. Hospital of Cook County. These family members have instilled a sense of empowerment and determination in Gavi and Remi to do something about the crisis they both are deeply concerned about, the growing grip of climate change. Their Jewish faith is held close to their hearts and identity. Several Jewish agrarian practices and philosophies are interwoven throughout their efforts.

Agroforestry

What does an agroforestry system look like on Zumwalt Acres? First, an explanation of agroforestry. Agroforestry is a land management approach that integrates trees and shrubs with plant and animal farm operations. There are generally five types: silvopasture, alley cropping, forest farming, windbreaks, and riparian forest buffers. Each practice positions a strategic portion of the area of an agricultural system into tree cover which brings great conservation benefits and increased productivity of other crops in the system. Tree crops have a high potential to store carbon in the biomass of their roots, trunks, and branches. This provides easily assured carbon sequestration. Agroforestry has been described as one of the top ten natural climate solutions. The Midwest, in particular, is targeted as the primary region for its adoption.

Alley Cropping and Shelterbelts

On twenty acres of the Zumwalt Acres farm, alley cropping is the primary method of agroforestry. This is the planting of rows of trees and/or shrubs to create alleys within which agricultural or horticultural crops are produced. When planted as they are doing at Zumwalt Acres, the trees and shrubs become a shelterbelt, which can be used to break the wind, protect against soil erosion and protect the nearby crops. Shelterbelts date back to 1934, when they were introduced just after the Dust Bowl. The concept is to plant the tallest tree in the center row, with decreasing height of other trees or shrubs in subsequent rows expanding out from the center. Depending on the heights, closeness of the rows and positions of the plants in between each other, the direction of the wind arcs upwards, interceding the intensity and damage potential of straight-line winds. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) supports shelterbelts and staff worked with Zumwalt Acres to enroll their shelterbelt in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), but that has not yet been realized.

Shelterbelts can also be used as a new means of harvest and revenue in the future with specialty nuts and fruits. At Zumwalt Acres, the shelterbelts consist of five new rows of pine, arborvitae, hazelnuts, pawpaw, and pecans. In the alleys, between the rows of the shelterbelts, they are in the process of planting and growing additional tree crops including chestnuts, pawpaw, hazelnut, serviceberry, and small grains. Serviceberry, also called Juneberry, is a small tree, or large shrub, from the apple family, native to the Midwest. Beautiful white 3 blossoms in the spring bear an edible fruit, purplish red berries, followed by a colorful display of leaves in the fall.

Part of the alley, approximately twelve acres, is being converted to organic hay, to prepare for future alley-crops. And in addition, they are making plans with the NRCS and their partners and fiscal agents, Delta Institute and Savanna Institute, to develop a pollinator planting or a riparian buffer on the Iroquois River near the farm.

Food and Vegetables

As one reads the daily farm journal entries, written and posted by Remi, descriptions of mouth-watering meals whet one’s appetite for home-cooking on the farm. Aromas and images resonate of whipped sweet potatoes, spaghetti squash, Kasha Varnishkes, spinach palak paneer, fried squash blossoms stuffed with mushrooms, blueberry compote, Challah bread, yellow curry, and lentil soups. The end of long work days culminate in team-prepared and shared meals that reawaken one’s awareness of culinary possibilities from the garden, particularly during the weekly observance of Shabat, when there is more time for preparing a feast on a day of rest. One half acre is dedicated to vegetable production at Zumwalt Acres, where a great deal of planning, cultivating, and weeding happens in order to keep the diverse harvests, more than 90 varieties, abundant throughout the seasons.

In addition to feeding the apprentices, the vegetables are also sold at farmer’s markets. New channels of marketing are being explored as production ramps up for distributing their harvest through a farmer’s co-op and food hub in Central Illinois, Down at the Farms. Through this service, Zumwalt Acres joins an estimated 60 farms in Central Illinois for marketing and delivery to chefs, grocers, individuals, and institutions. The farm retains its identity and has its products showcased to a larger audience that includes Chicago and downstate restaurants. Their first buyer was a popular Chicago venue, Kopi Café, who purchased a large order of their romaine lettuce.

In the Jewish faith, when it comes to harvesting, there are several tenets that have been traditionally honored to assure that food is left for the less fortunate and poor. One is referenced on Zumwalt Acres’ social media. “Leket” in Hebrew means collect. “It commands that ears of grain that fall to the ground be left in the field to make food accessible to those who wouldn’t have it otherwise.” A portion of the vegetables and food grown at Zumwalt Acres always goes to various food shelves and food banks in the area, in observance of these values.

Five Acres of a Food Forest

As this farm’s agroforestry plans come into fruition, food will not only be sourced from the vegetable garden and trees in the alley crops and shelterbelts. Five acres of an existing forested area on the farm are under transition to become a food forest, another agroforestry practice. Currently, the NRCS does not fund food forests unless the land is being converted from program crops like corn and soybeans. Expert guidance from the Savanna Institute, however, has helped put these plans into motion, which will later be demonstrated so others can learn as well. Initiatives underway are the planting of peach, apple, fig and other fruit trees within the forest. In addition, mushrooms are being cultivated. An added spot provides for the inoculation of oak logs with mushroom spawn for Oyster, Shitake, as well as native Morel mushrooms. Additional plans include developing an apiary, or bee farm, to produce honey and wax, and ginseng, as a medicinal plant grown in the forest.

Carbon Draw Down from Biochar and Increase in Soil Health

For a carbon draw down impact at Zumwalt Acres, 2,000 trees will have been planted by the end of this growing season. That’s just the start of it. Gavi is applying her studies at the Earth and Planetary Science Department at Yale with on-farm field research on the use of biochar. She received a three-year Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) grant to study biochar use and tree health.

Biochar is a charcoal-like substance that’s made by burning organic material from agricultural and forestry wastes (also called biomass) in a controlled process called pyrolysis. It differs from common charcoal in that it is produced using a specific process to reduce contamination and safely store carbon. At Zumwalt Acres, deadfalls in the forest and farm are converted to biochar through the use of a low-cost, small-scale biochar kiln. Their kiln is a model called Kon-Tiki. It burns their organic material in an anoxic environment, meaning, without oxygen, capturing the carbon dioxide and converting it to a stable, solid form for thousands of years. The biochar is mixed with soils in the field for crop production of any type.

Biochar is being studied as an amendment that may increase the rate of carbon sequestration. The apprentices at Zumwalt Acres are learning how to measure the carbon captured through using research methods, like fluxing. Biochar also may increase soil productivity. The resulting enhancement of plant growth could in turn absorb more carbon dioxide. According to the NRCS, biochar helps reduce bulk density, runoff, soil loss, and the leaching of nitrogen. It also increases porosity, infiltration, and improves the soil’s ability to resist rainfall impact, water and wind erosion.

Recent updates from the Zumwalt Acres team report producing 3,200 litres of biochar. They have collected and analyzed over 100 soil and 30 biochar samples. The team will also share their findings through webinars and publications. They presented their research at Savanna Institute’s 2020 Perennial Farm Gathering, a conference with over 400 attendees.

Basalt Research for Soil and Crop Benefits

Additionally, as part of her work at Yale University, Gavi Welbel is conducting research on enhanced rock weathering (basalt) and its effect on increasing soil fertility and crop yields. Basalt ‘dust’ is available from basalt mines and acts similar to lime in soils. Applying this crushed silicate rock speeds up a naturally occurring chemical process known as weathering. Basalt rock has been shown to improve soil quality, increase crop yield, decrease the need for other soil amendments, and mitigate climate change. Much more research, however, is needed. The basalt used in research at Zumwalt Acres is sourced from mines in Massachusetts and Vermont.

Wider Application of Research

Gavi and the team at Zumwalt Acres hope to meet the need for field-based trials to verify model-based predictions and to demonstrate to farmers how and why climate-smart practices should be implemented. Through this work, Zumwalt Acres’ team hopes to model regenerative agriculture that is scalable across the Midwest and beyond.

NRCS and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP)

In addition to the alley cropping and shelterbelt efforts with the NRCS, the team at Zumwalt Acres is considering applying to the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) since they have several practices in place that minimize resource concerns on their farm. This NRCS program offers an annual payment on all acres of the farm based on conservation practices already in place. It also provides an opportunity to do additional practices and demonstrate initiatives, like the ones underway with basalt and biochar research.

Partners and Networks

Additional partners with Zumwalt Acres include the Illinois Stewardship Alliance, Chicago Environmental Educators, and the Jewish Farmers Network.

Productivity Followed by Rest

Mornings, afternoons, and evenings are very full and rich at Zumwalt Acres. Their network and bonds grow as they continue to innovate and find fulfillment in their work on the farm. This is described beautifully by Remi.

“Digging into the ground and rapidly growing dreams into reality, I could feel a renewed sense of hope rushing through me. I felt the agrarian roots of Judaism connecting me to the land and environment in ways I have never experienced before. The deeply instilled Jewish value of tikkun olam, repairing the world, felt visceral as I planted apple trees, burned biochar, and built an organization dedicated to revitalizing agriculture in the Midwest. Through our tireless efforts, it felt like we could seed hope, uproot broken systems, and grow meaningful change.” – Remi Welbel

Down the road, when it is time to observe another important Jewish imperative called Shmita, there will be time for another full-stop, rest, and reassessment. We look forward to learning what comes after that.

Shmita

Shmita is the Jewish imperative to let the land rest every seventh year by leaving it fallow. The shmita year is like the sabbath of the earth.

“ ‘The land,’ says G-d, ‘is Mine; you are but strangers with Me.’ We are guests on Earth.”

Leviticus 25:23 7

Authors

Anne Queenan, Queenan Productions | anne@queenanproductions.com

Author Anne Queenan, Queenan ProductionsAnne Queenan writes and produces stories that inform and engage on subjects interweaving land stewardship, agriculture, science, clean water, and collaborative communities. She brings to life sweet spots of hope and curiosity with real life scenarios sharpened through her expertise in public broadcasting and communications. Her social work training amplifies the human voice and points to interconnections where systemic change can happen. She has written, produced and developed documentary short videos, articles and communications strategy for foundations, environmental nonprofits, state agencies, educational institutions, and soil and water conservation districts. She has also co-led and organized steering and advisory committees for co-creative outreach efforts in water quality with diverse partners. Queenan is also a photographer, videographer and drone operator. She and her dog, Coda, live on the Mississippi River in the Driftless Area where she enjoys paddling, birding and hiking through the Bluffs.

Linda Meschke, President and Founder, Rural Advantage | linda.ruraladvantage@gmail.com, http://ruraladvantage.org

Linda Meschke has over 35 years of experience in working on agricultural and water resource issues in south central Minnesota. Her work has been focused on projects that improve rural communities and the implementation of a variety of conservation practices and getting changes on the landscape to improve water quality. She is currently working on landscape diversification of the intense corn and soybean region in south central Minnesota to integrate more perennials and 3rd Crops and to develop agriculture-related entrepreneurial enterprises.


 

Case Study: How NRCS Working Lands Programs Helped the Carneys Transition to Rotational Grazing in Iowa – GLBW, Jun 2021

Download a PDF of this writing here

Bruce Carney and his wife, Connie, began their fulltime farming enterprise, Carney Family Farms, when Bruce’s father passed away in the spring of 1996. Corn, soybeans and a cow/calf herd had historically been produced here. In early 2000, Carney started transitioning from row crops to forage-finished beef. The last year for row crop acreage was 2008. By then, the transition to the forage-finished beef operation was complete, perennial-based with pastures, forages, and a cow/calf operation.

Working with livestock is enjoyable for Carney. “A cow does much to benefit the land because it is an awesome recycler. Eighty-five percent of what goes in the front of a cow comes out of the back as fertilizer and biology,” he asserts. This is one of the reasons Carney focuses on livestock – to improve the health of the soil. The switch from row crops was primarily motivated, however, by a desire to reduce the amount of chemicals in their lives for their own health and well-being.

Few chemicals are now used on the farm. Beef sold is natural, with no antibiotics or hormones administered. This is true for their pork as well, which is raised by their daughter and son-in-law nearby. Bruce Carney uses high quality annual forages for finishing beef How NRCS Working Lands Programs Helped the Carneys Transition to Rotational Grazing in Iowa GLBW Case Study by Linda Meschke and Anne Queenan 2 With several creeks running through the farm, Carney Family Farms lies just off the Skunk River, southeast of Ames, Iowa, near the southern end of the Des Moines lobe. Currently, the farm consists of 100 cow calf pairs of cross-bred cattle with a strong Angus base.

A range of 600-1,000 acres is managed each year with cool and warm season pasture and forages. In addition to his own 300 acres, he was invited to work with Polk County Conservation and the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation who provide a varying amount of pastures to rent. Using a multi-paddock rotational grazing system, Carney’s cattle rotation ranges from twice a day to a three-day rotation. His livestock graze on C4 warm season grasses and forbs, which are representative of prairie. He also uses cool season perennials and legumes, and interseeds warm season annuals on his home pastures. He actively participates in collaborative trials with these organizations. One current project looks at how to control and manage trees in prairies with livestock.

“The cattle look really good coming off native prairie,” said Carney.

Most of the beef is sold through direct sales and marketing efforts by his daughter, Amber. Beef that is not directly marketed is sold to Thousand Hills Lifetime Grazed for processing and sale. He also raises a few nonGMO, grain-finished cattle, based on consumer demand.

Environmental Quality Incentives Program and Conservation Stewardship Program

Two of the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) programs have been instrumental in supporting the efforts on the farm – beginning with the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). In order to get started with the transition to rotational grazing, EQIP was initially used to help provide fence and water High stock density and adaptive grazing practices are used at Carney Family Farms 3 systems with water lines, to work with an existing gravity water delivery system for their 300 acres. Some cover crops were also funded through EQIP.

Carney recently presented to a farmer-to-farmer informational network, the Practical Farmers of Iowa, and described EQIP as a program where the farmer asks for specific financial support in advance to help accomplish particular measures. He recommends doing one’s research beforehand to determine what is needed in order to accomplish clear goals, and then approaching the program to see how it could be used to support those efforts.

At the time he initiated EQIP, it was requested that all of the creeks on their farm be put into a 15-year Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) contract, which served to develop a cattle-free corridor with the use of the new fencing. This practice led to a habitat attractive to wildlife with its native plants along the creeks and kept the creeks relatively free from soil erosion and from nutrients that can be contributed by cattle. It also became a favorite recreational spot for his family. Though the parameters of the CRP agreement set strict limits that no cattle could access the creeks, it was vital to have access to the other parts of his farm, and to have a back-up water resource in the event the primary water system broke down. This compromise was eventually agreed on and implemented with three creek crossing points. These are heavy-use areas that are protected with limited access.

Carney is working through EQIP to add warm season native perennial grasses, forbs, and legumes into 80 acres on his home farm. This will help extend the forage availability in the summer season for his herd and complement his cool season grasses and forages. Interseeding summer forages helps reduce weed pressure and cool season perennial seedbank competition before the warm season grasses are seeded.

The second NRCS program that has supported the operations is the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). Carney was one of the first in the Skunk River watershed in Iowa to enroll in the CSP program. One aspect he really likes about the program is that it pays for conservation initiatives that the farmer has already taken on. “CSP involved a lot of paperwork to start with as it looked at your entire farm and the conservation practices you were already doing,” he explained. As for Carney, he was doing quite a bit: the setup of a rotational grazing system, a watering system, waterways, field buffers for row crops at the time, and no-till, to name just a few. Since the initial whole farm assessment, the CSP process became easier with reapplications only requiring updates. He has been enrolled in CSP for 15 years and has signed up for an additional five years, continuing his conservation ethic.

Openness and Flexibility in Technical Assistance

As one who proactively researches information needed for his next possible steps, Carney finds technical assistance on his own, through other farmers, holistic farming conferences, private consultants, and some knowledgeable representatives of the NRCS programs he engages. For years, he has worked productively and resourcefully with his Polk County NRCS representative. However, he farms in four other counties. When trying to replicate what he’s done on his home farm, but met with limited responses from representatives in other counties, he’s referred those staff to Polk County conservation staff. They learn what’s been done on his farm and how land has been managed through these programs. Since some of these practices, like agroforestry, are new and not the norm in other counties, openness and flexibility to learn from counterparts in neighboring counties has been appreciated.

Goals and Planning for Diversity

Carney describes the conservation objectives on his farm as not using chemicals, improving soil structure, and building soil health throughout the farm operation. A five-year plan for interseeding legumes and broadleaf forages in existing cold seasons pastures is underway through EQIP as well.

A whole farm plan has been developed to guide Carney Family Farms’ operations and to meet long term goals – most of which are founded in diversity. “Be diverse in your livestock. Be diverse in all revenue streams,” he states. “If you have ten different crops on your farm and one or two of them fail, you still have eight crops that can give you revenue.” In the long term, he plans to stay in forage and meat production with a variety of livestock species including cattle and pork. Low-input agriculture will prevail here.

Diverse Functions of Trees

One long-term goal is to implement practices for additional income sources for the family’s next generation of farmers. He does this through a variety of trees. For example, he has planted chestnuts, heartnuts, pecans and hard maple trees for syrup for future diversity. He is also growing oak and walnut trees for lumber.

Newly planted chestnut and heartnut trees along a swaleSilvopasture, a practice of agroforestry, integrates a variety of trees, forages, and managed grazing of livestock in a mutually beneficial way. The trees provide shade for livestock and serve as windbreaks in the pasture. This is something that Bruce is also looking into for the future.

“Trees can be a living barn for livestock,” says Carney. “Historically, livestock were not born in a building.”

Thousands of trees have been planted throughout his farm for wind breaks. Unfortunately, some of these trees, particularly near the creek, were destroyed by a derecho that hit central Iowa in August of 2020. The derecho also caused a lot of damage to trees and fencing in a rented timber pasture. A variety of many more trees will need to be planted.

Trees positioned as strategic windbreaks at Carney Family Farms

Additionally, a Forest Management Plan has been designed for his home farm by a private forester and supported with a cost-sharerecently added to Iowa’s EQIP program. The state of Iowa’s conservation programs, through the Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD), have also helped Carney Family Farms access funds in earlier years for tree-plantings and seedlings.

Water Management with Swales

Swales are currently under development on Carney Family Farms to better manage water movement across the farm. Unable to identify any programs to assist him, Carney developed a strategic plan himself. The swale collects water and extends about 2000 feet where water then exits the swale on a ridge in the pasture. It then goes another 2,000 feet before entering the creek. This can help filter and store surface water, reducing runoff rates into the creek. Recently established trees grow along the swales, which wind through the grazing paddocks.

Hope for Neighbors

Carney has found it difficult to convince some of his neighbors to adopt the conservation practices he is using on his farm. “All they want to grow is corn and soybeans. They look at cover crops as just a cost with no value to the soil,” he said. “Until these farmers start looking at their cover crops at the same level as they look at their corn and soybeans, they won’t get a benefit.” He is encouraged, however, by the increased use of no-till in his neighbors’ operations.

The soil health on Carney Family Farms today is excellent. Infiltration testing on the farm indicates ten to twelve inches of rainfall an hour will infiltrate before runoff occurs.

Sources of Learning

Carney has often had to travel out of Iowa to learn about the types of management he desires for his farm. Local field days have not typically addressed soil health and livestock grazing. Recently, he has seen an increase in these types of programs in Iowa and hopes it will continue throughout the state.

Groups he has worked with in addition to NRCS and SWCD include Practical Farmers of Iowa, the Savanna Institute, Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota, private seed companies, Green Cover Seed-Nebraska, and the Iowa Forage and Grasslands group. Specific farmers who have been mentors and taught him volumes include Greg Judy, a holistic farmer in Missouri; Ian Mitchell, a South African cattle grazier in holistic management; and Doug Peterson, a soil health specialist for NRCS in Missouri. He has also participated in his NRCS Local Work Group over the years.

Suggestions for Improvement of Local Conservation Programs

Bruce Carney has ideas about how local conservation programs can be improved to better serve farmers:

  • Assist in putting seed mixes together because there are limited public mixes available; mainly farmers need to turn to private companies for seed mixes
  •  Let farmers innovate to improve conservation on their land; allow flexibility to fit these innovations into existing and new programs 
  • Increase a culture to learn from peers 
  • Allow grazing on land in the Conservation Reserve Program
  • Support agroforestry as a good option in Iowa and other states
  • Support mentorship programs through financial incentives, perhaps under CSP

Authors

Anne Queenan, Queenan Productions | anne@queenanproductions.com

Author Anne Queenan, Queenan ProductionsAnne Queenan writes and produces stories that inform and engage on subjects interweaving land stewardship, agriculture, science, clean water, and collaborative communities. She brings to life sweet spots of hope and curiosity with real life scenarios sharpened through her expertise in public broadcasting and communications. Her social work training amplifies the human voice and points to interconnections where systemic change can happen. She has written, produced and developed documentary short videos, articles and communications strategy for foundations, environmental nonprofits, state agencies, educational institutions, and soil and water conservation districts. She has also co-led and organized steering and advisory committees for co-creative outreach efforts in water quality with diverse partners. Queenan is also a photographer, videographer and drone operator. She and her dog, Coda, live on the Mississippi River in the Driftless Area where she enjoys paddling, birding and hiking through the Bluffs.

Linda Meschke, President and Founder, Rural Advantage | linda.ruraladvantage@gmail.com, http://ruraladvantage.org

Linda Meschke has over 35 years of experience in working on agricultural and water resource issues in south central Minnesota. Her work has been focused on projects that improve rural communities and the implementation of a variety of conservation practices and getting changes on the landscape to improve water quality. She is currently working on landscape diversification of the intense corn and soybean region in south central Minnesota to integrate more perennials and 3rd Crops and to develop agriculture-related entrepreneurial enterprises.


 

Case Study: Using NRCS programs for CLC farming: Haase Farm – Blue Earth, MN – GLBW, Oct 2020

Download a PDF of this writing here

Scott Haase farms 1,400 acres of no-till soybeans

Scott also farms strip-tilled corn and cover crops in the rich soils near Blue Earth, Minnesota. From a conventional corn-soybean crop rotation, he is transitioning to a farming system that uses regenerative practices including continuous living cover. Rather than focus on yield, his priority is on farm profitability.

Cover Crops

For the last five years Scott has been growing cover crops on his corn ground. He interseeds cover crops in June when the corn is around a foot tall at the V4 stage. He utilized a multispecies mix that includes annual ryegrass, buckwheat, clovers, and brassicas.

Scott gets a better response from annual rye than when he tried cereal rye in his system, which does not do as well in the shade of corn. He looks to his local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) professional for advice on cover crops, and he utilizes the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to support trying these practices on his land.

No-till soybeans and strip-till corn with cover crops reduce inputs, tillage passes, time, and energy use on the farm while helping build structure and carbon in the soil. He sees the soil starting to handle heavy rains better, due to the improved infiltration of water. Trafficability has also improved.

Perennial Buffer

Using the NRCS Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), Scott has established a perennial buffer using native grasses, hazelnuts, and elderberry plantings to provide important plant diversity, wildlife habitat, and soil protection on his farm.

Peer-to-Peer Support
Field day

One of Scott’s objectives is to develop a regenerative community with other like-minded farmers. He welcomes farmers to his farm and has hosted several field days to emphasize the regenerative practices he is using, including striptill, no-till, and cover crops. In addition to hosting his own field days, Scott participates in other field days, podcasts, and meetings to learn from soil health experts like Gabe Brown and those with NRCS, Practical Farmers of Iowa, and Sustainable Farming Association.

Future Plans

Going forward, Scott would like to expand his continuous living cover practices by integrating livestock into his operation. He previously integrated livestock through the Pasture Project program. He plans to explore EQIP options for fencing to help him add livestock into his operation to graze corn stubble and cover crops. He is also interested in contracting to raise sweet corn or peas to integrate them into his rotation, following such crops with cover crops and/or grazing. The opportunity to extend out the corn – soybean rotation with a third crop, such as alfalfa or a small grain, is also on his list.

Positive Impacts

During the five years Scott has been using these practices on his farm, he has noticed improved soil structure, increased soil organic matter, and better water infiltration. Once the soil is functioning closer to the way nature intended, fertilizer, seed treatments, fungicides, and herbicides can be reduced or possibly even eliminated.

Author

Linda Meschke, President and Founder, Rural Advantage | linda.ruraladvantage@gmail.com, http://ruraladvantage.org

Linda Meschke has over 35 years of experience in working on agricultural and water resource issues in south central Minnesota. Her work has been focused on projects that improve rural communities and the implementation of a variety of conservation practices and getting changes on the landscape to improve water quality. She is currently working on landscape diversification of the intense corn and soybean region in south central Minnesota to integrate more perennials and 3rd Crops and to develop agriculture-related entrepreneurial enterprises.


You’ll find good info and farmer perspectives in these past profiles too!

Singing Hills Dairy - GLBW, Nov 2020

Download a PDF of this writing here

In southeastern Minnesota, Lizy Bryant is apprenticing with her aunt, a long-time farmer and cheesemaker, to take over stewardship of the land and the business, as part of her plan for the next iteration of the farm to be an agricultural retreat for Black Minnesotans. 

Lizy Bryant, Singing Hills Dairy, Nerstrand, Minnesota

Singing Hills Goat Dairy is at a moment of transition. Lynne Reeck has stewarded the land for 26 years and operated the goat cheese business since 2008. This year, Reeck’s niece, Lizy Bryant, is apprenticing with her in preparation to take over the business and stewardship of the land. Bryant intends to create an agricultural and artistic retreat space for Black Minnesotans at the farm, both to expand Black land access and knowledge and to provide a majority-Black refuge in an overwhelmingly white state. She is running a GoFundMe campaign so that a broad community can help her to take over the land without debt. 

Lizy Bryant spoke with us about her relationship with the land, supporting Black farmers, and the challenges and opportunities of generational farm transfer. We have condensed and edited her words for length and clarity.

Photo credits Yasmin Yassin (except goat close up, Lynne Reeck).

Growing up Black in rural Minnesota

I grew up in small-town Minnesota, spending time on my grandma’s farm near St. Cloud. I worked informally there, and a detassling job in high school was the first time I filled out a W4. I’ve realized what a privilege it is to have grown up in proximity to farming. So many Black folks and other people of color who are drawn to farming don’t even have the level of access to explore it that I did. Part of what I want to create is one more accessible path for these folks. 

It was really difficult for me growing up in small-town Minnesota as a Black person, as a woman, as a queer person. I left as soon as I could, and spent eight of the last ten years on the East Coast. I gravitated towards Black-majority spaces, because I wanted to blend in unremarkably and embody my culture without being surveilled. 

I came back last July, for a job and family, and for some unnamed force that was pulling at me. In January, I started pursuing the idea of a safe space where Black people can practice agriculture or cultivate their livelihoods. Seven percent of Minnesotans are Black, but they comprise just .03 percent of the state’s farmers, while 84 percent are white but make up more than 99 percent of farmers. When George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis in May, it brought a greater urgency to the project – and in supporting mutual aid networks as part of the uprising, I met other people pursuing similar ideas. It’s part of a larger impulse happening now.

Generational transfer

My aunt has been on the land for almost three decades and founded Singing Hills Dairy 12 years ago. She’s a one-woman show. At one time, she had a herd of 70 goats; she was milking 30, and making and selling cheese. She and my other aunt sell at farmers markets on the weekends. Lynne is going to be 66. The farm and business are an amazing feat of her brilliance and endurance – and the life is hard on her. 

She thought 2019 was going to be the last year. She needs to get out. But there’s a pressure because like for many small farmers, there’s not a cushion of wealth. A lot is owed and tied up in the bank. So Lynne is continuing to work and hold onto the space so we can facilitate this transfer, as well as training me in all she’s learned about the land, cheesemaking, and animal husbandry.

It’s a challenge and it’s an exciting moment. There’s an incredible energy among Black emerging farmers and farmers of color, while at the same time, there is opportunity opening up as baby-boomer farmers are about to retire, many with children who don’t want to take over the farm. The bridge is equitable land access. This is the moment to harness all these calls for reparations, for equitable redistribution, for addressing how our food systems are weak and flimsy – all these issues that have been so exposed this year. 

Land stewardship

When my aunt came to the land, it had been used for intensive rowcrop production and the soil was depleted. She responded by leaving it undisturbed and letting it regenerate. She experimented with renting part of her pasture to beef cattle, but found that they were too heavy. She chose goats because – besides loving goats, with their curiosity and curiosity about humans – they have a gentle tread on the land, and that works well here. She raised hogs too, feeding them whey, and selling pastured pork at the farmers market.

Lynne has studied systems like filtration ponds for graywater from the cheesemaking. We’ve been talking about plants that we could put in where a creek enters the property, to enhance filtration of that water. We hope now to establish some of these ideas that she has thought about but has never had the capacity or resources to implement.  

In the longer term, I want to plant more trees. Cherries, apples, and hazelnuts have all grown successfully here, and I’d like to grow a real orchard, for the soil and increased biodiversity, as well as for food security and economic potential. 

Overall, I’m forming a relationship with these 25 acres. Like when we have genuine connections with people, we don’t want to harm them and we want them to be well – I feel like it’s the same concept with the land. I want to move forward with farming practices following in my aunt’s footsteps, and in the tradition of the people who were here for 10,000 years not disrupting the land in the ways that we have in the last 200 years. 

How to leverage privilege 

As a Black person who is not independently wealthy, it feels important to leverage the privilege that I do have, which is a privilege that comes from displacement. The reason why I have proximity to farming – why my grandma had a farm, why my aunty grew up on a farm – goes back to Indigenous people being displaced so the land could be given to white settlers. So I’m striving to leverage that privilege in a way that seeks justice, both for Black people and Black farmers who have been historically barred from land access or who have been displaced – and also for the Indigenous people who were displaced from this very land that we’re on. 

Those histories are interconnected, and they founded the history of extraction in the US. The history of slavery and the history of Indigenous displacement and genocide are the bed on which our capitalist extractive system is made. I try to hold this with everything I do, from how I’m going to produce a wheel of cheese to figuring out what it looks like in action to create a place for Black people to be surrounded by nature in a rural environment and agricultural space in this state, to just exist without fear and without threat of violence.

Growing a Farm for Black Minnesotans

https://www.gofundme.com/f/blackland2020 

Update: since the time this farm profile was written by GLBW, a different path forward for this farm transition emerged. You can read more about that here.

Bent Gate Farms - GLBW, Nov 2020

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Mark Peterson, Bent Gate Farms, Stanton, Iowa

Mark Peterson has been involved with agriculture all his adult life in one form or another. He and his wife Melanie farm about 500 acres of their own and rented land, growing conventional corn, soybeans, wheat, oats, and rye, and a rotation of single- and multi-species cover crops, along with what Mark calls “non-income producing livestock”: a dog, cats, and horses. Peterson is a past board president of Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) and is in his final year as a board member.

We asked Mark about his cover crop rotation and how it insulates against unpredictability, and about where he finds hope these days. We have condensed and edited his words for length and clarity.

Getting into cover crops

The family we purchased our farm from in 2003 was extraordinarily generous with us and the farm was in great shape. I wanted to make sure that whenever we were done with it, we left it in even better shape. I considered organic; I went to a meeting on organic with presenters who were Practical Farmer members. While we didn’t go that direction, they were infectious enough that I joined PFI on the spot. It was PFI and PFI Strategic Initiatives Director Sarah Carlson who were instrumental in getting me going on cover crops. 

I’m in small grains to break up a corn/soybean “rotation” – if you even want to call it that. The small grains add a third crop that’s harvested in July, and then we plant a multi-species cover crop, which needs a longer growing period than you’ll have following corn or soybeans in Iowa. The small grains are the gateway to get us to the multi-species cover crop, which is the ultimate goal. 

In less than 10 years doing this, we have seen an increase in organic matter in excess of one full percentage point, which is huge. That’s a free 20 pounds of nitrogen and an extra inch of water-holding capacity. That’s a benefit in two ways: when we have one of these almost-annual “hundred-year floods,” the ground will absorb an extra inch, and then this summer when it got really dry, that’s an extra inch of water you’re holding onto. 

The impact of keeping ground covered 

One piece of land hadn’t been treated very well prior to us farming it. Our soil agronomist said it was the lowest fertility level that he’d seen in any piece of ground, with a corn suitability rating (CSR) in the 40s (much Iowa farm ground has a CSR in the 90s). We fumbled around with it for a few years and then decided to get drastic. 

It was the first piece that we put out with small grains, followed by a multi-species cover crop. I intended to no-till a crop into the cover crop the next spring, but it grew so well that I was nervous about doing that. So we made the decision to bring a neighbor’s cattle in and process the cover crop into these nice cow pies. They did an awesome job of it. Now we graze all of our multi-species cover crop; I think it’s key to get the biology of the manure. 

We did no-till corn into it the next spring, followed by no-till soybeans, and corn again the following year. And that second year corn crop was slightly over 200bu/acre! On this very low-CSR ground. I was gobsmacked, to say the least. It was unbelievable. 

Committing to a new way of farming

It does take some commitment. The multi-species cover crop rotation is not a year that you’re going to make a lot of money – but I don’t know that you do with corn and soybeans anyway. 

It is some work to mess around with small grains, and that’s what you have to do; it’s either that or fallow up to the multi-species cover crop. I’m able to market my small grains: we’ve got a market for wheat 50 miles away; I can market my oats right out of the field to cattle producers; and we sell the rye as cover crop seed. 

And then you have to deal with the cattle, which means fence. We formed an alliance with a cattle producer neighbor, and he doesn’t mind stringing fence. There’s a little income there because he pays a little rent on the grazing rights.

Resilience in uncertain times 

There’s so many different kinds of uncertainty right now, none of which we can control. With all these big rain events, anything I can do to insulate myself from too much or too little water, too much or too little heat… The extra organic matter helps with that, plus with the cover crops, the surface between your planted rows will be at a lower temperature than with bare black ground.

And then we’ve got wildly variable prices. We put a lot of rye on in the fall, and we’re planning on no-tilling our soybeans into it without terminating the rye right away. I see the potential to take out a pass of chemicals and still raise a good crop. The cereal rye has a natural effect to cut down on weed pressure. It’s not anything magical; if you’ve got a good enough stand out there, the rye’s been growing all winter and it’s got a head start on the weeds. The soybeans kind of like it. So anything a person can do to cut down on costs, whether adding fertility or being able to cut down on weed control, you can make yourself more financially resilient too. 

Finding hope

Where do I find hope? In 2020?! 

Well, I find hope in these newer “old” methods: we’re going back to how it used to be before herbicides or synthetic fertilizers came into play. Cover crops and small grains were used as fertility enhancements and natural weed control. As we’re going back to those methods, we are becoming more resilient. All of this is consumer-driven, so the hope is that people are becoming more aware – to a point – of where their food is coming from and that they can play a role in asking for things to be more environmentally-friendly. 

I see hope in the younger generation. There’s a movement of younger folks in PFI who are going back to the land. They don’t need the shiniest equipment, they pick and choose what they want to keep updated. Using older, smaller equipment, and farming what I call deep rather than wide – getting more off an acre rather than having to farm half the county. They’re more labor-oriented and less mechanically-oriented. That’s very hopeful. I hope it continues to expand.

Breslin Farms - GLBW, Nov 2020

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In the face of climate and pandemic uncertainty, Molly Breslin of Breslin Farms in Ottawa, Illinois, is planting sunflowers, considering trading small grains for intensive cover cropping, and finding hope in the national canning jar shortage. 

Molly Breslin, Breslin Farms, Ottawa, Illinois

Molly Breslin has 80 acres in production on a 100-acre farm in Ottawa, Illinois. The farm was started by Molly and her father, John, and is in its 11th year, on land that has been in Molly’s family for generations. John was a retired lawyer when they began, but in recent years he has taught himself immigration law and come out of retirement to work on immigration cases. Molly is now sole proprietor of the certified organic farm. She grows yellow and heirloom corn; soybeans; dry beans; sunflowers; small grains including wheat, rye, and oats; and cover crops. 

We asked Molly to reflect on farming in this uncertain time: practicing resilience and finding hope. We have condensed and edited her words for length and clarity.

On-farm resilience 

On the farm, I think of resilience in terms of our ability to adapt as the climate changes. 2019 was the worst year ever, I felt like I was drowning. My 83-year-old neighbor said it was the worst year he’d ever seen too. It was cold and wet during planting and cold and wet during harvest. My cousin kept his combine in my shed until he finished harvest; I planned to do my fall clean-up once he got it out – but he didn’t finish until February 15. So I never cleaned up equipment and put it away, things broke over the winter… That’s what kind of year it was. So I’ve been thinking about ways to make this land more resilient.

One example of how this looks on the ground is that I started growing sunflowers. They don’t make as much money as corn, but they can be planted in the same position in a rotation and they can be planted much later to still make a crop. They’re native, and equipment doesn’t require much modification to deal with them. Last year, I planted 1.5 acres because it was such a bad year and I had a piece of ground where I couldn’t put in anything else. This year, I got a contract for sunflower oil and grew out 30 acres. Sunflowers can be used in an emergency as an alternate crop, or just to diversify cropping possibilities. And we’ll see – when we started growing corn in 2012, organic feed corn was between $12-14/bu. Now it’s $6.75/bu. So we’re not yet in a situation where sunflowers would be more profitable than corn, but we might get there, especially if weather variability means we’re planting later and the crop is already compromised. 

Reconsidering farming goals

After 10 years on the farm, I’ve been thinking a lot about my reasons for farming: is it to steward the land for the future or to maintain the farm as a business with yield and profit as the main aim? I’ve been balancing both over the last decade. I have a second job now, which gives me more flexibility to think about different options. For instance, I’m considering taking a quarter to a third of my ground out of production annually and cover cropping it, as an investment in long-term soil building and tillage reduction. 

I used to do a lot of direct marketing, including of small grains, which otherwise are notoriously less profitable. I lost those direct markets with the pandemic. If I don’t want to keep pursuing that avenue, I could take small grains out of the cash crop rotation and replace that year with intensive cover crops. I could be improving my ground much more effectively – topsoil renewal, water infiltration, carbon sequestration – if I were focusing on cover cropping, rather than balancing cover crops and making an immediate profit. I’m exploring this idea, it’s moved my thinking toward the long view of the viability of my farm. 

Systemic economic resilience 

On a larger scale, the pandemic and resulting economic situation have really illuminated that systemic, government-led organization of and support for things like child care, health care, and education is absolutely essential to making farming possible. If we want more people – and especially more women – in farming, which is essentially a risky gamble of an industry, we need to address some of the huge barriers to entry and ensure farmer stability. 

Someone recently called and offered me another 100-acre farm. I had sit down and think about it: I have a four-year-old, no childcare due to the pandemic, and a side job. I would like to, but I’m just not sure I can take on any more. We shouldn’t have to take out enormous personal loans to start a business. Wealth gaps created and exacerbated by decades of structural discrimination mean that many people can’t get in at all. Addressing these systemic issues is essential for people doing all kinds of work. Without that, as a nation, we are less resilient in the face of any kind of crisis. 

Finding hope

When last season was so bad, there was a lot of cover cropping on prevent-plant acreage. I found that really hopeful. Now that these people have grown a cover crop, maybe they’ll see the benefit and do it again.

I find hope in the common ground I’ve seen out here on climate change. Farmers might not all agree that it’s human-caused, but it’s so obvious that it’s happening and that we need to adapt. I’ve had conversations with conventional farmers about how we’re going to change what we’re doing. I’m seeing farmers interested in more possibilities besides just switching their variety of corn. 

The pandemic-based fear of food insecurity has created a canning jar shortage – that gives me hope. People are taking their food supply seriously and taking matters into their own hands on a major scale. 

And every year, the spring gives me hope. 

https://breslinfarms.com/ 

Instagram and Facebook: @breslinfarms

Tsyunhehkw^ Farm - GLBW, Feb 2021

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Kyle Wisneski, Tsyunhehkw^ Farm, Oneida Nation (Wisconsin)

Kyle Wisneski is the Farm Supervisor at the Tsyunhehkw^ (joon-heh-kwa) Farm on the Oneida Nation, where he has worked since 2003. The farm, begun in the 1950s, was renamed Tsyunhehkw^, or “life sustenance,” in 1983 for its focus on growing and educating about Oneida crops. The farm is best known for re-establishing high-protein Indigenous white corn, a traditional staple of the tribe’s diet that is made into over a dozen foods, including soup, mush, and corn bread. The eight acres of corn at Tsyunhehkw^ are usually harvested with 1,500 volunteers during an October harvest and husking bee; with events canceled due to the pandemic, the 2020 harvest – with a record yield – was completed over several months by 200 dedicated volunteers.

We talked to Kyle about white corn, climate change, and the hope of a community relearning to feed itself. We have condensed and edited his words for length and clarity.

A personal connection

When I was growing up, my grandpa on my white side had a garden and tree farm, and my Oneida grandpa had a traditional three sisters garden (corn, beans, and squash). Going between the two, I remember one grandpa really working hard, using every tool he could get his hands on. On the Oneida side, it was easy farming – using the environment and the land to his advantage, and giving back at the same time.  

But the one who farmed conventionally was really healthy and lived into his 90s, while the grandpa who stayed true to the land got diabetes. He was the first Oneida diabetic with a home dialysis machine, and the whole family went through that pain. When I got older, my number-one driver was how I could help my community with this disease. We’re ravaged by diabetes. Not because of our decisions, it was brought to us as our traditional foods were taken. 

Reclaiming heritage and health 

The Oneida are known as the first agriculturalists; it’s our heritage and culture. We say it takes a village to raise a child, and part of that village is a garden. It is woven in our DNA to be connected to the ground. The Oneida are originally from what’s now New York; when we were forced to move to Wisconsin, we lost the majority of our foods and traditions. 

Through Tsyunhehkw^ Farm and our cannery, we’re getting traditional foods back into the community. 

At Tsyunhehkw^, education is key: we can’t feed everybody, but we can give them the tools and the knowledge. We hold about 20 workshops a year, on the three sisters, grazing, traditional medicines, and much more. We hold a seed and plant distribution and a garden design workshop, and we’ll come till your garden bed. We’ve created over 500 raised beds and there are three sisters gardens everywhere now. The Tsyunhehkw^ farm used to be the only place growing the white corn; last year, we counted over 75 gardens growing it. 

The cannery processes the white corn into all of our different foods, and makes jams, applesauce, sauerkraut, and more from the produce on the farm. The cannery has a youth education program and community members use it too.

This work really has helped with overall health. We’ve seen tremendous results with people who are in the health center diabetes program with us.  

Traditional crops in a changing climate

Climate change is making a huge impact in our community already. We feel like we’ve done as much as we can to combat it in our small area. It really seems to be closing in. 

2020 was a record year for our white corn yield, but the prior two years were record-breaking for rainfall and yields were way down. Our elders are noticing drastic change in our crops as a result of the weather patterns. Our corn was 110-day, but in the last five years, it’s fluctuated from 106 to 125 days. We’re starting to notice a dent in the kernel. The dent means flour corn, and if it’s only good for flour, we’ll lose the high protein and other properties that make our other foods. We’re worried that the DNA of the seed is changing. We’ve fought off Monsanto and Bayer, right off our site – they love our seed – but now this.  

Some of our usual native grass cover crops also have not been holding as well, they don’t seem to like the climate. We’ve been working with tribes in the Southwestern U.S. on a ten-year plan, looking to when climate shifts mean that our local seeds could really benefit each other across regions. We have 22 Nations in our Indigenous Seed Keepers Network in the Upper Midwest, and we’re building the connections for a Nation-to-Nation seed bank.

Incorporating cattle into the rotation

We are the only Tribal Nation with a registered Shorthorn cattle herd; we have about 80 animals. We do intensive rotational grazing. We never leave the animals on the same paddock for more than one day. Depending on the season, they will not return to that paddock for 31-55 days. Although we don’t have the land base or animals, we are recreating the move of bison on the Great Plains, which created the richest soil in North America. The closer we can mimic the bison roaming the prairies, even with cattle, the closer we can get to the Native ecosystem.

We originally brought cattle to Tsyunhehkw^ to replenish much-needed nitrogen and nutrients to the soil for growing our Indigenous white corn. As far as we know, we are the first Indigenous Nation to use a ruminant in its white corn rotation. The cattle have brought our annual fertilizer bill for the corn from $10,000-$14,000 down to $3,500. We have learned that we are also raising the healthiest meat on the reservation, and we now donate beef to our emergency food pantry. 

Restoring the land

Tsyunhehkw^ has always been recognized as the caretaker of the land, but there was always a stigma, like we were just the hippies. We had 82 acres, while the Oneida Nation Farm, which grows conventional crops and beef, had 7,000. This started changing in the last few years with recognition for our grassfed beef and Indigenous methods, and then the pandemic really pushed it. Now we’re upwards of 500 acres – within a year and a half. It’s been wild. 

It started with a manure spill by a non-tribal member who was renting land. Almost a million gallons went into Silver Creek, which the tribe had just put a lot of money into cleaning up and where we had started seeing trout reproduction and other fish again. The spill killed eight dump truck loads of fish. The next day, tribal leaders called to ask if we wanted 130 acres of land to remediate. 

We took it over, and lowered the contamination from 100% to 7% – no one had seen that. We put our cattle on it for the winter and put our native grasses on the 20 acres that were most affected. We let the environment do its thing. We brought a lot of prayers, brought people who are experienced with that type of environmental remediation, both our traditional folks and our environmental department. The recovery was amazing. 

Since then, Tsyunhehkw^ has recovered an additional 260 acres that were conventionally farmed. We let the land rest for a year. The weeds that grow tell us everything we need to know – they show us the soil’s deficiencies. The second year, we’ll try to get animals on, or if we can’t, we’ll disc it once. We plant sunflowers; when they’re 8-10”, we’ll throw a native grass in there to cover the ground. The sunflowers grow so fast that the grass doesn’t get more than half an inch to an inch tall all year, we’re just looking for cover. We do that for two years. At that point, the land is prime for food production or for our seed bank, that’s when we’ll get the best yield. 

On finding hope

Our community is thriving. When the pandemic hit, the Nation told us to focus on feeding people. We started a food security giveaway, giving away boxes of food: our white and blue corn, our beans, cabbage, apples, beef, chickens, eggs… There were 125 cars in line for the first one. We gave away over 8,000 pounds of food this year. 

People are really into what we’re doing; they’re talking about climate change and RoundUp. It’s really looking bright for the Oneida Nation.  

Follow Tsyunhehkw^ on Facebook.