Mike Wagner was farming out of his pocket in 1990, severely undercapitalized and short on options, but mindful of a high number of conventional farmers going broke. Minimum till rice drills had just hit the market and he snapped the first one off the shelf, hopeful for a good start on leased land. When he punched ground on a May morning (assisted by blue, 15-gallon drums of D Pak) a steady stream of trucks stopped along the edge of his fields as drivers peered at the spectacle: Wagner was planting seeds into weeds.
According to the plain realities of farming, conservation agriculture’s yardstick is efficacy and profit, and in four operations in Mississippi, Iowa and South Dakota, conservation and financial success are a wedded pair. Leading edge can be bleeding edge on any part of agriculture’s stage, but Mike Wagner, Pete Hunter, Rob Stout, and Chad Schooley have long stood at the vanguard of an effort to mix crop management with environmental awareness, and produce tangible benefits to soil and nature, without sacrificing dollars.
In the 1990s, Mike Wagner was intent on switching the playbook on diesel consumption, irrigation, tillage, aquifer depletion, and labor issues on his farm outside of Sumner, Miss. He pulled an about-face, financed his own research and drove toward crop quality and conservation. The result is one of the most unique agriculture operations in the United States: Two Brooks Farm, situated in the heart of the Mississippi Flyway in Tallahatchie County.
Wagner powers his farm with an avian army. Waterfowl arrive by the thousands after harvest, demolishing stubble and depositing fertilizer at the dollar-saving rate of 60 units of nitrogen. The birds move from acre to acre stamping down rice straw, enabling Wagner to broadcast seed during spring planting with minimal nitrogen application. In addition, Wagner doesn’t put out insecticides or fungicides on his rice: “I have pretty damn good luck without ’em.”
A Delta rice field can easily suck in 2 acre feet or more of water, but Wagner uses a matter of inches and the difference is dollars. Concisely, what he pumps, he keeps. His zero grade fields use 6” of aquifer water (8.9” average across the entire farm), and the remainder of Two Brooks’ water use comes from green sources. Nutrient runoff isn’t an issue due to water recycling, and Wagner also uses irrigation canals as settling basins to hold potential runoff.
When a paddy needs to be drained, the water is channeled into an adjoining field in a staggered approach that requires minimal electricity and diesel. If a timely July rain hits, Wagner doesn’t lose a drop of water from his zero grade fields. (In 2016, he cut off well pumping on July 10 for the entire season.)
All of his efforts are aimed at keeping machinery out of the fields. “Fuel, equipment, labor and fertilizer savings are incredible over the long haul,” he says.
Financially, the return from Wagner’s conservation approach has been consistently strong, he explains: “We pull out old tillage equipment every five or so years. We invest in planters and combines. Our equipment costs stay down and our yields are comparable or better, but we irrigate a little less than our neighbors.”
Conservation begins with a questioning process, Wagner continues: “Put a small part of your farm in conservation and you will question what you can do to make it better, and then leverage those questions into answers that can be used as a broad basis. Imagine if everyone had just 20% of their ground in no till or minimum till. We’d be heading toward a 20% reduction in erosion and runoff, and lots of help for the Gulf, although I’m not about to let all the blame for hypoxia fall on farmers. Des Moines, St. Louis, Memphis and other cities flush all their mess in the river and conveniently pass all blame to agriculture.”
In the future, Wagner is considering the SRI rice system to make even more efficient use of water and lower plant populations—more calories with less resource use. Also, he grows group III soybeans, but wants to experiment with more group II. “If everyone in the Delta grew IIIs instead of late IVs, I believe they could chop off an irrigation, and if they could chop off two, that would balance the annual aquifer drawdown water deficit. I’d like to grow some IIs, maybe at 300,000 live plants up per acre, and we might be able to cut our irrigation to nothing.”
Even a small portion of an operation placed in conservation-minded production is highly significant, he concludes: “My ideas can’t necessarily be implemented on another guy’s farm, but something else will work because everyone’s land is full of unique opportunity and their soil is unique.”
A short hop from the Mississippi River in Coahoma County, Miss., Pete Hunter has long walked the line for 40-plus years between crop management and conservation in the north Delta on the historic ground of Stovall Farms. A legacy of conservation at Stovall Farms traces back to the 1940s and 1950s, with crop rotation, fallow ground and cover crops, followed by land-forming and pipe-and-pad irrigation in the 1960s. (Muddy Waters grew up as a farmhand at Stovall and was familiar with the planting of burr clover as a cover crop—surfacing in his 1942 song Burr Clover Blues.)
“Conservation has been a part of Stovall for so long, and we always investigated new practices and implemented whatever worked and would benefit the ground,” Hunter describes.
With the advent of glyphosate-tolerant crops in the 1990s, Hunter began leaning toward minimum till and no till, with strong results on heavy ground. “There are so many ways to save money, and minimum till and no till greatly reduce costs per acre in field preparation. People still think you can’t plant a seed into cotton stalks from the year before, or into weeds that you’ve killed. They think you can’t get a stand; I know you can because we’ve done it so many times.”
Hunter has enacted a lengthy list of conservation measures: cover crops, automated irrigation, flow meters, well timers, surge valves, computerized hole selection, variable rate fertilizer, CRP on select ground, low-stage weirs, tailwater ponds, two stage ditches to help soil nutrients settle out before leaving the farm, and significantly more.
Hunter emphasizes soil loss enhanced by exposed ground each winter. “Naked and bare is what so many Delta farmers embrace, and frankly, that’s the worst thing for conservation. Guys don’t realize that a single inch of rain releases tons of soil every time.”
Excruciatingly tight margins mean growers must have excellent drainage, Hunter notes, resulting in fast-moving water. “Everybody wants their ditches cleaned with high-speed backhoes; the rain hits and runs off, bam, it’s gone. Water blows off our farms and charges into streams and river faster than ever. We’ve done a much better job getting water off our land, but that comes with a really high conservation cost.”
“Everyone’s land and geography means their recipe will be different, but if everyone took just a few percents of their acreage and put in grass waterways, or CRP in the right spot, or covers, or something else, the Gulf dead zone could be greatly reduced. The dead zone is never going away because a lot of it doesn’t come from farming, but we could still make a big impact for the better.”
“There are so many ways to save money through conservation because there are so many ways to conserve on a farm. At least ask questions, find out what matches your ground, and you’ll even be surprised by what cost-sharing is available,” Hunter adds. “Soil health is vital to profitability in today’s farming industry, and cover crops are the most effective and affordable ticket to good soil health. Check with your NRCS office about cost-sharing programs.”
“Conservation may be different on almost any farm, but there is something you can do.”
Rob Stout manages a 9,000-head hog operation, and grows 1,100 acres of corn and soybeans in southeast Iowa’s Washington County on a mix of rolling hills and flat black ground often wedged into the same quarter section. “For me, conservation agriculture means taking care of the land as a good steward, conserving nutrients in my soil and making sure what I paid for gets used by my crops, and having water leave my operation in better shape than it would otherwise.”
Stout runs 60’ buffer strips on two farms with a creek in between, allowing native grass roots to suck up nitrates and keep soil in the fields. He also maintains a farm pond to drain nearby acreage and enable nitrates to bubble to the surface and escape. In addition, Stout has an edge-of-field bioreactor covering 75 acres that serves as a wood-chip filter to pull out nitrates from tile water. “Over five years, we’ve seen a 70% reduction of nitrates from that ground,” he says.
The view of farm conservation as a financial burden is a misguided assumption, Stout contends: “We’ve been no tilling for 35 years, and there is no way I’d do no till if it hurt me financially. Conservation can lead right to genuine dollar returns. Investigate. Talk to other farmers. Look past your field edges. Anyone can try a practice or two to improve the environment or water quality with almost no cost from your own pocket.”
With no idle iron except a 40-year-old piece of equipment to level tile lines, Stout calls no till a “financial no-brainer” based on the slashing of expenses. “I’ve only got a planter, sprayer, combine and a livestock operation. I save on equipment costs, labor, and time. No till also doesn’t cost me a bit in yield and some years I know I’ve got extra yield when it’s so dry.”
Echoing Wagner and Hunter, Stout advocates for more conservation participation from other growers, regardless of level. “I feel responsible to do my best. I certainly don’t expect everyone to use things like bioreactors; that’s too much expense for some. However, everyone can do at least something and just think of the effect across a county, state or entire nation.”
Fifth-generation producer Chad Schooley began farming in 1991, and grows alfalfa, corn, oats, soybeans and wheat in the rolling hills of Hamlin County in east-central South Dakota. He also runs a cow-calf operation and a 600-head finishing feed lot.
In the late 1990s, Schooley wrestled, and frequently lost, against a quarter section of light ground with heavy bottoms—the light acres burned in summer and the heavy acres often stayed too wet for consistent crops. Schooley took a new approach, decided the marginal land would make productive cattle ground, and converted his first tillable acres to grass, placing the quarter section in a federal grassland easement.
“It was a great financial move, even when commodity prices were high because I was looking for long-term ROI. The program is a perpetual easement and the grass can’t be broken again, and I realize some guys have different views on that, but its right for my operation. It was a very good move.”
Several years later, Schooley bought another quarter section of grass with the same easement in place. Fast forward to 2015: He converted a third quarter section of rented marginal ground, implementing a rotational grazing system with six paddocks. (Schooley maintains rotational grazing systems on all pasture land across his operation.) “I have a special landowner. He could get more money for tillable rent, but he’s a conservationist as well.”
All of Schooley’s converted land (480 acres) used to be in corn, soybeans or wheat, but the ground didn’t provide consistent profit, he describes. “Some years yes; other years no. It was costing me the same to raise corn and beans on a good piece of ground as it was to raise them on a marginal piece. The input costs were the same even though the ROI was not.”
“If I want to be a conservationist, I still have to make money or I won’t be in business to conserve anything. I can prove profit on the converted grassland by my stocking rate. We’re able to run more units (cow-calf) on that ground and I make more money on it than I could have with crops.”
On the rest of his crop land for the past decade, Schooley has planted cover crops for soil health and cattle consumption. “Cover crops, rotational grazing systems, above ground water pipelines, riparian buffers; I’m always trying to make my marginals better and improve the land, and keep my soil from going down the Big Sioux River. I want my black dirt to stay right here.”
“Every acre counts in conservation and if you improve the right couple of acres, you can improve a much greater area.”