Champions of Conservation
Apr 06, 2021
A change is taking place on farms across the Midwest; a transformation moving toward a farming system that is more sustainable – environmentally, economically and socially.
As efforts increase to raise awareness of conservative farming practices, food is being produced through evolving agricultural innovations and practices that help farmers increase efficiency and reduce the amount of natural resources like water, land and energy necessary to meet the world’s food, fuel and fiber needs.
Member-owners across the state are converting to regenerative agricultural practices on their operations, while still meeting consumer’s needs in the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
From the Beginning
In the 1950s, Lewis Unruh’s late father, Charlie, purchased part of the land Lewis and his son, Jason Unruh, farm today. Straddling the Marion and Harvey county line, the land had once been abandoned due to its inability to sustain a crop. Now, through Charlie’s careful regenerative agriculture practices decades ago, Lewis and Jason operate County Line Farms LLC on those same fields.
Charlie was an early adopter of sustainable efforts. Working closely with one of the first soil conservation services, he determined contour lines in the fields to follow when sowing wheat to reduce further soil erosion. He was also among the first to build terraces in his fields.
“When I was three or four, I remember Dad building terraces with a plow and blade,” Lewis says. “I grew up with the mindset that you don’t farm over terraces for any reason. Each terrace was treated as a separate field, and you didn’t farm them down.”
Lewis says because of his father’s diligence to farming along terraces, he and his son are now able to farm close to an additional 100 acres they once had to avoid due to severe soil erosion.
“The land healed itself up,” Lewis says. “It was a horrible mess thinking back on it. When the topsoil is gone, you don’t expect to ever get it back, but we’ve made it to where we’re able to grow things.”
Lewis continued his father’s sustainability efforts as the farm transitioned ownership. In 1996, he started adapting the no-till farming method.
“When we started, there were several guys north of us that went 100% no-till,” Lewis says. “Our neighbor sold all of his machinery and bought no-till equipment. It took us about two years to fully adapt.”
Lewis added cover crops into the rotation and for the last five years, his farm is always growing a crop, whether it be a cover crop or a row crop.
“We’ve found that cover crops have both a short- and long-term payoff,” Lewis says. “In the long-term, they’re preserving the soil resource. In the short-term, they’re helping to conserve moisture, control weeds, capture nutrients and provide shade.”
Aside from his father’s influence, Lewis holds personal beliefs that sustainable practices are important for the future.
“I’ve looked at these practices as long term,” Lewis says. “You may not get an immediate payoff this year from these efforts. Especially in our area with erosion-prone soils, it’s a long-term outlook to preserve the soil for the future.”
Bringing It Home
After traveling the world observing and learning about different farming systems, Jason Schmidt of Grazing Plains Farms LLC in rural Newton was captivated by the sustainable and organic niches of the agricultural industry and eager to implement those practices on the family farm.
“My dream is to find a system that is in balance with nature,” Schmidt says. “When I think of sustainability, I envision developing food systems that have an ecological component where humans can work with natural ecosystems to be sustaining far into the future.”
As a college undergraduate, Schmidt took a year off to participate in a young adult exchange program through Mennonite Central Committee (MCC).
“It was during that year that I began to realize the connection between environmental health and human health,” Schmidt says. “I gained a new perspective, that rather than the paradigm that views farming as being in conflict with nature, we need to realize we are a part of nature and we depend on a healthy ecosystem for our own well-being.”
Through MCC’s program, Schmidt shadowed a retired priest who was setting up small sustainable projects in villages throughout South Africa. His budding interest then led him to a two-year internship in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico after graduation.
“I helped organic vegetable farmers and a grass-fed rancher group develop direct market cooperatives,” Schmidt says. “From that experience, I became interested in the economic and ecological benefits of grazing.”
Schmidt continued his education with a master’s degree in plant and environmental science from Clemson University before returning to his family’s fifth-generation farm. He and his parents worked out a five-year transition for him to take over the dairy operation, while his parents kept the cropland.
At the core of Schmidt’s beliefs is the idea that his practices should not be extractive, degrading or mining resources, or destroying soils and air quality.
“A broad approach is to look at the natural prairie ecosystems that used to exist and ask how I can move my farm to model those,” Schmidt says. “How can I build up the soils rather than degrade them?”
Schmidt’s no-till systems consist of rotational grazing pastures, which comprise of perennial polycultures – a mixture of grasses and legumes that are self-sustaining – and annual cover crops.
“I try to have live roots growing on all grounds at all times,” Schmidt says. “During the winter months, instead of dry lotting heifers or dry cows, I continue to rotate them through paddocks and add bale grazing, where I unroll or set out round bales on marginal ground that has been degraded to build up the soil.”
In addition to soil conservation, Schmidt installed solar panels to supply electricity to his operation.
“The solar panels account for 60-70% of electricity for the farm and house,” Schmidt says. “I have a wild dream of being a net-zero carbon emitter and am always trying to lessen my carbon footprint.”
To bring additional value to his operation, Schmidt uses milk from his 70 Jersey cows to make artisan cheeses in his licensed on-farm creamery.
“Small dairies have been quickly going the way of the dinosaur,” Schmidt says. “Our margins are narrow. Still, I’m seeing the ecological resilience I’m striving for; I’m trying to figure out the economic sustainability for those of us that want to stay small.”
Schmidt’s ten years of experience on the farm hav taught him there isn’t an immediate return on investment when it comes to conservation efforts.
“I think that’s one sad thing about implementing soil building practices,” Schmidt says. “It’s a long-term return on investment. I would be lying if I said this has made me financially successful. But in the paddocks that I incorporate bale grazing, I’ve seen the grasses grow so much faster and resilient through dry periods.
“I’ve heard of research that shows 30% of the topsoil in the Midwest is gone. It’s a real travesty and scary harbinger of what is to come if we don’t take the authority to redirect and reverse this trend. It’s in all of our interest to think about how we protect our soils. All life begins with a healthy soil.”
“Dust in the Wind” is one of the biggest hits for Kansas – both the classic rock band and the state. Unfortunately for farmers, the dust blown up by high Kansas winds is typically their most precious resource – soil.
After falling victim to soil erosion, Zach Salter, a Sterling area farmer, sought remediation through regenerative practices.
“As a custom applicator for MKC, I have seen other people utilizing and finding success through implementing cover crops on their fields,” Salter says.
Salter talked to Chris Thompson, MKC strategic account manager and cover crop expert, to learn more about how cover crops might benefit his fields.
“Chris and I looked at some of his customer’s fields so I could see how they benefited soil types similar to the sandy soil of my fields,” Salter says. “After talking with Chris and doing some reading of my own, I was ready to plant them.”
Salter’s final motivation to start utilizing cover crops was the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). According to the USDA website, EQIP “provides financial and technical assistance to agricultural producers to address natural resource concerns and deliver environmental benefits such as improved water and air quality, conserved ground and surface water, increased soil health and reduced soil erosion.”
Salter planted his first field of cover crops in the fall of 2020. He says he hopes he will see the cover conserve moisture, decrease weed pressure, help with wind erosion and build up organic material in the soil.
Outside of cover crops, Salter’s sustainable practices include no-till and participation in MKC’s Optimal Acre program.
“Through the Optimal Acre program, we do nutrient management prescriptions and grid samples,” Salter says. “It has helped me limit my inputs and put my money where it needs to be and not where it isn’t.
“My plan is to continue what we’re doing and improve upon it. After seeing the benefits in my fields, I wouldn’t go back.”