Brown County has abundant fertile land
When you talk about the most fertile farmland in Brown County, the conversation starts with Bath and Putney.
But that’s not the end of the conversation. Former Brown County Extension educator Gary Erickson said the best land is in the Groton, Stratford and Bath areas and then up through Columbia.
Brown County is known for having excellent farmland. Those engaged in farming know where the most productive areas are. The number of bushels harvested per acre provides that information. Farmers and others in the agricultural industry were asked where those areas are.
Aberdeen appraiser Marv Siebrecht gives a simple answer: He said the county’s most productive land is in the James River Valley.
Siebrecht cites data to back up his point. Like others involved in agriculture, Siebrecht works with crop soil ratings, also known as a productivity index. That index rates farmland on a one to 100 scale, with 100 being the best. The highest rating he could find in the county is a 43-acre tract north of Bath, which has a rating of 97.7.
Crop productivity index ratings, compiled by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, rank soils based on their potential for crop production. The index can be used to rate the potential yield of one soil against that of another over a period of time. Siebrecht said in South Dakota, the numbers determine how effective land is at producing wheat, corn, oats, barley and alfalfa.
Farmer Dennis Jones, who lives between Bath and Columbia, agrees with Siebrecht. The county’s best farmland, he said, is usually within two or three miles of the James River.
Steve Winter, a soil scientist for the NRCS, said the most productive land is, for the most part, in the east central part of Brown County. That land runs from Aberdeen to Groton and to the north. There is also some good land near Stratford, said Winter, who works in Redfield.
The quality of land makes a big difference. Harry Pharis, who farms near Putney, said the yield difference between his best quarter and worst quarter is 50 to 70 bushels per acre.
The productivity of Brown County farmland is well-known. Jones owns an almanac, published in 1988, that said the land in Brown County is judged, by the experts, to be home to the third-richest soils in the world. There is nice level land and few rocks.
Jones said he was told by the late E.C. Rhodes, an Aberdeen banker, that the James River Valley ranks behind only Russia’s Ukraine Valley and the Red River Valley on the North Dakota-Minnesota border.
The quality of land can vary within a surprisingly short distance. One township northeast of Groton has land with a crop soil rating of 47.4. Four miles north of that property is land with a 92.1 rating.
Erickson, who now works for Wheat Growers, said the area west of U.S. Highway 281 doesn’t get as much moisture as the eastern part of the county. Some areas don’t get the rain they need when they need it, he said.
Conditions vary, though, from year to year.
But Pharis said the quality of land isn’t as important as it used to be. Improved technology and better farming methods are helping level the field. Smart farmers can make land with a 70 crop soil rating equal to one with an 80 rating, he said.
Pharis and his son, Kevin, say they would farm land that has a 70 rating, or maybe even the mid-60s.
You’ve just got to farm it a little differently, Harry Pharis said.
Land is as productive as the operator makes it, he said. No-till and precision farming help a lot, he said.
Farmers are raising pretty good corn now on the western edge of the county because of technology, said Warren Grebner of Aberdeen, a former general manager and chief executive officer of Wheat Growers.
Jones praises the land in Cambria and Columbia townships. In the past, those two townships raised the best corn if it got a little dry, he said.
In the last few decades, farming has changed a lot. But the two townships mentioned above are still home to good land.
Jones lives in Cambria Township. He also farms in Bath and Columbia townships.
Land that sold for $13,000 an acre in November was in Cambria Township.
Sometimes, the bid amount isn’t just about the quality of land, Siebrecht said. The price can escalate simply because there’s competition. The price just reflects what the land means to the buyer.
Harry Pharis believes there is land in many other parts of the county equal to the property cited by experts as the best.
The James River Valley, Jones said, is what made Wheat Growers the strongest local co-op in the nation. During Grebner’s years heading Wheat Growers, the co-op acquired facilities in Huron and Redfield, among other areas.
Grebner, now 92 and retired, said the most productive land in the county now is probably in the Columbia and Bath areas.
The dirt in some sandy areas used to blow a great deal during the Depression, Grebner said. But the installation of shelter belts and changes in farming have made those areas better for agriculture.
In Spink County, Winter said, the best soils are probably in the Frankfort area, along and south of U.S. Highway 212.
Winter notes that his work centers on productivity, rather than fertility. Productivity involves soil characteristics and the capability of the land.
People mistakenly believe that flat ground is always productive, Winter said. In Brown and Spink Counties, you’ve got some of the best soils in this part of the state, and then you’ve also got some of the worst soils in this part of the state, he said.
Doug Farrand of the NRCS office in Brown County said the rich soils can be traced back to glacial times. He said the best land in the county ranges from Aberdeen to Groton from the Columbia-Claremont area down into Spink County.
Many farmers owe a lot to their ancestors who homesteaded. Jones said he’s lucky that his great-grandfather received land, free of charge, in Cambria Township.
Pharis said that much of Brown County sets atop an aquifer. The subsoil moisture makes it easier to farm on sandy soil, he said.
But farmers agree that strides in technology have made farming more effective. Those changes include improvements in seed and genetics, the use of minium and no-till planting, precision farming and variable rate planting. In the latter practice, a greater concentration of crops is planted on better soil.
Siebrecht said no-till practices allow farmers to manage water better.
Jones said he and Siebrecht used to cultivate corn three times up to the Fourth of July.
“We don’t even own a cultivator today, Jones said.
Siebrecht attributes a lot of agricultural value to the James River. In the years when wheat was king, Spink County was the largest wheat-producing county in the state.
And most of it happened right around the James River, Siebrecht said.
Siebrecht said Brown County’s best land is found in an area surrounded by Warner, Stratford, Putney and Bath.
Jones points to the area from Bath to Columbia to Putney. Good land is also found near Stratford, he said.
Traditionally, farmers in Iowa had advantages over South Dakota because of more rainfall and a longer growing season. But because of changes in technology, Jones said, South Dakota is quickly catching up.
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