Seeking healthy soils and sustainable community

Farm Forum

Challenging the premise that modern ag is necessary to feed the world, a group dedicated to ‘building healthy land, building healthy people’ met in Aberdeen last week for its winter conference.

The Northern Plains Sustainable Ag Society seeks to create healthy soils to create a sustainable operation and a sustainable community. According to the group, it’s not just the farm but the whole community that contributes everything from the butcher, the baker, to the candlestick maker.

“It’s an easy message, and they believe many seek to be part of it,” said Edd Goerger of Wyndmere, N.D., the executive director of the NPSAS. “Unfortunately, the group is often seen as old-fashioned and backwards.”

Goerger said Cornell University has been doing trials for the last 30 years, comparing practices and rotations. He said they are seeing 90 percent productivity using sustainable practices compared to conventional in the long term. Such information motivates him to provide continual updates to his group.

“Each year the conference grows by 15 to 20 percent,” Goerger said. “Of those who come, there are a high percentage of young people looking for a way to get into ag. For those who want to make ag a part of their life, there are many barriers to overcome to get into traditional ag. Conferences like this give choices and opportunities to those who might be looking for it.”

While the society’s membership is around 300, the conference drew more than 600 from the Northern Plains including South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska and Minnesota. It’s important to the producers to share information with like-minded producers because that information that is not readily available through commercial channels.

Goerger said those attending come from acreages ranging from 5 to 5,000 acres and everything in between. The operations range from those raising vegetables in hoop houses to multiple types of row crops to growing livestock and crops together on one site.

In one of the presentations, a group shared research from their “Farm Breeders” club. The group compiles research on ancient grain breeds. They are looking at some of those grains left behind by conventional agriculture which may be used as cover crops, such as buckwheat and cowpeas. Many presenters shared what they have learned through breeding trials. An expansion of this idea will be an examination of heritage animals that are bred for unique attributes and flavor.

The conference and the group is very family oriented. After attending, “You are part of a larger family, and the group is eager to continue the sharing,” Goerger said.

Food for thought

Charlie Johnson, 57, chairperson of NPSAS, farms with his brother Allan on 2,400 acres in southern Lake County, near Madison. They grow corn, oats, soybeans and alfalfa. Four full-time workers handle the operation with fill-in help from other family members as needed.

“For a lot of those who attend the conference, it’s a way to get energized by visiting with other farmers and friends,” Johnson said. “It’s like a family reunion, with that kind of atmosphere. The group takes pride in providing discussions on diverse issues and offering workshops for those participating. There are a wide variety of topics from canning to raising hogs to doing weed control without chemicals.”

Bringing in speakers such as Alan Guebert provides a lot of food for thought and discussion, Johnson said. He said Guebert echoes the concerns the group has about soil loss and big ag. “He reinforces a lot of what we think and believe.”

The group has concerns about substituting iron for human capital. “Sustainable ag involves the hands of farmers rather than the wallets of the wealthy,” Johnson said.

Johnson said it’s not only about raising crops and livestock, but about raising the young generation of farmers to be the new stewards of the land.

“You can either have Monsanto in your fields or kids in the high school. It’s up to you to decide,” Johnson said. “Our emphasis is research, education programming and advocacy, and we want to involve our members in all three facets.”

Bringing everyone to the table

Bringing in speakers to talk about farm policy stimulated a great deal of thought. The keynote speaker addressed the desire for good food, change and the need to stand up to big ag.

“There was more locally grown food 50 years ago and most of us were skinnier and healthy,” Alan Guebert, free-lance journalist, said. “All of us had more neighbors, more community, more banks, more dime stores than we have today in rural America.”

He said it is little wonder that a new generation has discovered the importance of good food and asked, “Why did we stop?”

“You know better than anyone else how much work goes into delivering good food,” Guebert said. “Think of the big gardens. Most don’t do it anymore. It’s hard work to grow, harvest and can it. That’s why most don’t do it. And that’s why you do it.”

“You’re delivering the food so I don’t have to work and sweat,” he said. “Tell us this is your food and you deserve the price for it.”

“There are a lot who don’t want you to succeed,” Guebert said. “Your success is an indictment of the way you farm. The way they farm isn’t going to last, you know. They know it. It’s never lasted. Ag left to its own devices will produce itself into dire poverty.”

“If big ag feeds the world, what are you doing? Gardening?” Guebert said. “Corporate ag looks at you and says, ‘Shut up, for crying out loud, we feed you and just shut up.’ That’s the message they tell you.”

“They want you to shut up about atrazine, GMOs, Roundup, antibiotics in meat, phosphorus runoff, chicken imports,” he said. “They say, ‘We got this, so shut up.’ “

“Do you think change is inevitable?” Guebert said. “As a German raised as a Missouri synod-Lutheran, we don’t do change. But it’s coming, and we have to face it. You don’t farm like your father did and those who follow you won’t farm like you did.”

He counseled, “Use your brains, focus on your talent. The key part of the future is you.”

Coming back

Aaron Johnson, 34, returned to farm with Charlie and Allan Johnson five years ago. He grew up on the family farm, went to college for ag systems technology and then worked for a large agronomy company.

“Charlie has mentored me for the last five years,” Aaron said. “In 2014 I broke away on my own. I guess you could say I was kicked out of the nest, but I am still in the tree.”

“I really like it that I can walk in the house and pick up my 3-year-old daughter and don’t have to worry about any residues from chemicals on my clothes that may affect her,” Aaron said. “We’re more worried about being affected by the common cold than by being adversely affected by anything we use on the farm.”

Aaron said each person in the operation has a niche that they handle. They often cooperate on big projects, but mostly, they work with their own acres.

Terraces and grass waterways are used to combat erosion. About half of the acreage is in solid seeded crops throughout the year. Six shelterbelts have been planted on Johnson land, in honor of Aaron and each of his siblings.

“I think we’ve been around long enough that neighbors respect and admire what we do,” Aaron said. “They are happy to see someone some coming back to farm.”

Kevin Johnson, 35, is a brother to Charlie and believes the sustainable practices are very important to the environment. He said by implementing practices to result in clean, unpolluted water flowing into lakes and streams, it’s better for the economy and healthy for everything grown.

Organic crops receive a premium of 2 to 2 ½ times conventional prices, according to Aaron. But a lot of work goes into the fields when chemicals aren’t used to control weeds. For row crops, a rotary hoe is used, then a week later, a cultivator is used in-between the rows. Later in the summer, hired help will come in to pull or cut the weeds, and the cycle is completed with harvest.

By buying as many agricultural inputs as they can from local suppliers, the Johnsons support the economy of the area. Oats are kept back to clean for the next year. Fields are supplemented with fertilizer, composted chicken/turkey manure.

Local kids walk the field and pull out weeds by hand. “With rows planed 30 inches apart, every 30 inches there is a human footprint in our fields,” Charlie Johnson said.

Making big changes

This is the sixth time that Roy Mursu, 64, of New York Mills, Minn., drove 230 miles to attend the conference. He said that he’s an example of someone who changed from conventional farming to organic. In 2002, he said he was getting ready to harvest his wheat. The common practice was to spray the crop with glyphosate to kill and dry down the weeds before taking the combine through the field.

“I started thinking, ‘Someone is going to eat this,’ ” Mursu said. “That awareness is what made me change. I have a couple of hundred acres where I use sustainable practices to grow row crops, hay and cover crops. Some of the land needed three years to make the transition, but it was worth it.”