Illinois Farmer Paves Road to Profit with Soil Health

“There are so many more guys open to change who want to start down a soil health path. That’s where our operation has gone because we had enough of the old ways,” Derek Martin says. ( Martin Family Farms )

Derek Martin steps off a tractor and walks across rich, black soil teeming with life. He moves out of the field and passes between machine shed doors, pulls up a stool beside a vat filled with a biological brew, and peers into the lens tube of a microscope. With the conviction of a soil health evangelist, Martin, alongside his brother, Doug, and father, Jeff, has transformed a 6,000-acre operation from an input-guzzling leviathan to a profit-per-acre force: “Over the last 100 years our soils have been fed a strict, constant diet of NPK. That’s like a human eating a Big Mac over and over and expecting to be healthy.”

Across his central Illinois farm, Martin replaced inputs with fervent nutrient management, biologicals and cover crops. The results, according to Martin, include a tide of benchmark changes in soil aggregation and carry tremendous sustainability benefits for the future of his Logan County ground. However, of more immediate significance, particularly considering agriculture’s rut of anemic commodity prices—is a booster shot in the pocketbook. “Money matters in the end. We now spend less on our farm, yet have either maintained or increased yield everywhere.”

Escaping the Money Pit

Almost in the bull’s-eye of Illinois, outside Mt. Pulaski, just 6 miles west of the state’s geographic center, Martin, 38, grows corn and soybeans on relatively flat prairie soil.

In the early 1980s, Jeff’s concerns over incessant soil erosion led to no till practices—extremely rare in the region at the time. In 2013, Martin began using cover crops (tillage radish out of the gate) and a mix of biologicals, with guidance from agronomist Brad Hobrock, co-owner of AgriBio Systems. Six years later, Martin has covers on 60% of his ground mixed between cereal rye, annual rye, crimson clover, buckwheat, oats, radish, and rape. He uses biologicals on 100% of his farmland. “We broadcast after planting and we broadcast in the fall to break down residue, capture nutrients and hold them until the following spring.”

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Synthetic applications of potassium and phosphorus have decreased on Martin’s operation—ranging from significant reductions to complete elimination, depending on particular farm locations. “By increasing soil biology through microbials and covers, we’ve improved our soil biology, and it’s capturing and converting nutrients that are readily available.”

“Instead, we spend our money on ignored nutrients like magnesium, boron, manganese, and sulfur to concentrate on improved photosynthesis and sugar production. Our soil aggregation has improved drastically.”

A particularly troublesome 40-acre field is emblematic of the transformation, Martin explains. In the middle of the field, five acres are designated for the Wetlands Reserve Program and can’t be tiled. Historically, the area has been a money pit due to abysmal yields. In 2016, Martin began cover crop and biological management on the ground. “This was our worst ground—beyond awful. It is literally some of our best ground now. It stands up to wet springs and heavy rains.”

“Terribly Misunderstood”

After successive days of precipitation in late January, Martin walks into a field, shovels under the snow cover into mud, and scoops a dark chunk of soil into a 5-gallon bucket. He drives a short distance to repeat the process in a neighbor’s field typically managed with a chisel plow, multiple passes and a high rate of NPK. He leaves both buckets on the shop floor and returns a day later. “My field sample was still clumped like cottage cheese and maintained its structure. The other sample? It was mush. The evidence of change is right in front of my eyes.”

Martin applies low rates of anhydrous in the fall with a strip till or no till bar, but intends to transition away from the nitrogen source and considers it “detrimental to soil biology.” Over the past three years, he has decreased nitrogen use to roughly .7 units per bushel across the operation. He has also eliminated the use of nitrogen inhibitors.

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In fall 2017, he experimented with a 20-acre field, applying anhydrous strips on half of it, and spraying 28% on the other half. When he took the field to yield in fall 2018, both sides yielded the same. “We know that if our soil is healthy, it should hold any nitrogen source. We didn’t lose any nitrogen, and through soil biology, we converted enough nitrogen from the atmosphere to carry over the crop.”

Soil health often is a “terribly misunderstood” concept, Hobrock contends. “Guys want to know where to cut costs and not cut yields. That means building resiliency in soils. There are huge gains to be made by improving soil health, but not by planting cereal rye and thinking that’s going to alleviate the problem.”

The Martin success story, Hobrock says, is based on a five-year transition to a stable and aggregate soil structure, allowing for efficient water infiltration. “Our guys using biologicals, and particularly AgriBio, have made very respectable amounts of money in the last two years, and that means cutting input costs and still producing the same yields or higher. Derek has cut major nitrogen use. He’s eliminated phosphorus and potassium without yield loss. The immediate and long-term savings are tremendous.”

Planting Naked

Essentially, Martin operates a science lab on the farm, examining fungi and soil samples under the microscope, and making biological brews as a dealer for AgriBio Systems. At 2019 planting, Martin intends to apply farm-made biologicals in-furrow for the first time.

In 2018, Martin planted naked on 100% of his soybean acreage—no conventional fungicide or insecticide seed treatments. “We added a biological (BioLaunch), and had zero problems. We had neighboring fields with fusarium wilt issues, but our fields had no problem.”

Martin is also walking away from particular chemicals, and projects 2019 as his last season to use glyphosate. “We’ve already reduced the use of glyphosate, and it has nothing to do with human health, and entirely to do with soil health because of how it remains in the soil.”

“We plant cereal rye or annual rye ahead of beans. Our mat was so thick we almost got away with no additional chemical pass last year. This time we’ll plant in green, and then spray behind the planter to completely eliminate a second herbicide pass.”

Kitchen Sink

Adam York, 38, grows corn and soybeans on 10,000 acres in Jacksonville, Ill., along with his brother, Nick, and uncle, Jeff York, on soils ranging from black to sandy to heavy gumbo. He began tinkering with soil biology in 2012, starting with a few test plots. “We were like any conventional farm and threw the kitchen sink at our fields: high rates of fertilizer with DAP and potash, high amounts of anhydrous, heavy insecticides, full seed treatments, triple-stacked corn, and you-name-it. If we heard someone preaching yield, we spent the money.”

Along came the unexpected: The soil health field trials worked. York began an intensive regime of self-education on biologicals, immersing himself (and several fields) in the management practice, and eventual co-ownership of AgriBio Systems. When 2014 arrived, along with a crop season of perfect weather, York threw in the towel on conventional agriculture. His fields churned out strong yields in 2014—250 bu. per acre across the farm—yet the numbers only strengthened York’s resolve. “These were the absolute best growing conditions I’d seen in my life and if this was as good as it gets, then it wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t satisfied.”

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In 2015, York went full-bore with a soil health strategy, applying a compost extract (Bio-Max) in-furrow at planting. He also applied Bio-Max in-season during irrigation and after harvest as a digester to break down residue. (York’s organic matter on prairie soils ranges between 2-3% and he aims to double the percentage in a three-year time frame.)

In addition, he eliminated dry fertilizer, dumped insecticides and glyphosate, backed off fungicides, reduced nitrogen rates, and seeded big acreage cover crops. Further, York planted naked soybeans and switched to non-traited corn.

I was sick of throwing Band-aids at problems. I thought some of this was snake oil when we first started, but was proven wrong in my own fields. It drove me to further my education in soil biology and it still drives me today.”

York partnered with Hobrock, and the pair began focusing on biological diversity. “This is about trying to work with Mother Nature and not against her, York explains. We’re pushing for long-term farming practices that are regenerative.”

By 2016, York’s fields began moving from strength to strength, culminating in a highly profitable 2018 and the highest soybean yields of his career, he notes. Central to the improvement, York says, is a substantial reduction of inputs. “We’re not giving up even a bit in yield, and making substantial gains. Our inputs drop while yields remain or rise, and that’s where you find profit. And things are going to get even better as we keep learning. An operation geared toward real regenerative practices can be very profitable and that’s what is happening on our farm.”

Going forward, York intends to blanket his acreage with cover crops, in conjunction with biologicals. Bottom line: He wants something living on his soil year-round. “Better-quality produced crops is the way to go. On the horizon, I want to grow healthy food for direct human consumption. It’s exciting because opportunity is there and more is coming.”

Yield and ROI

The assumption that soil health bleeds yield and profit is a costly misnomer, Martin contends. Yields initially remain steady, and then consistently gain, coupled with a sizeable reduction of input dollars. “Some fields got a yield bump in year one; some took three years for a yield bump. A real attempt to follow this program will change an operation. It only takes a few years—three to five—and you’ll see the evidence right in your fields.”

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Hobrock grows corn and soybeans on sandy ground and gumbo soils in the Illinois River Valley (Cass County), and puts heavy emphasis on cost of production. “Somehow our agronomy has been dumbed down to three nutrients. All the money spent on NPK isn’t working, at least in terms of profits and building soil health. Apply 200 lb. of DAP or potash and what do you really get besides spend, spend, spend? How much of that even makes it to the plant?”

“Even if the P and K was getting into the plant in sufficient quantities, we also need certain micronutrients to balance and regulate them within the plant,” he continues. “High yields don’t equal profit. The only thing that equals profit is profitably grown bushels.”

“The big question should never be about yield, but instead about how much money are you making? What is your ROI?” Hobrock asks. “Look at the guys using this soil biology system and you’ll see it’s enabling them to make money.”

The Road Ahead

As Martin builds on his soil health education, what lessons await? Possibly interseeding cover crops, and planting corn into green clover, in order to return and kill with one pass. In 2016, Martin accidently left a skip in a field after spraying clover in corn at V5. The patch with clover yielded 10-15 bu. better than rest of field. “I want to fine-tune those kinds of things and find out what opportunities may be right in front of us.”

He describes another example: Martin has long planted sweet corn on several acres adjacent to his shop, and followed it with cover crops. In 2017, he switched a solitary acre to field corn and applied 30 units of nitrogen; the acre yielded 230 bu. In 2018, he repeated the solo acre trial, planting field corn again, but added no nitrogen; the acre yielded just over 200 bu. “It’s exciting to gather this data because going forward we want to narrow down exactly how much nitrogen we truly need. How much of that can we convert strictly through soil health?”

The Next Generation

The Martins, Hobrock and York are of one accord: Mindset is a key determinant of success. “It’s all about mindset,” York says. “One, a guy has to make up his mind that he’s willing to change and it’s very tough. Mindset is the first place to start for soil health success. Once your mind is in, you’re ready to learn about soil biology. Two, nothing happens overnight. You can absolutely make profit in year one, but genuine turnaround for really bad soils can take five years.”

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Hobrock advises growers to start with small acreage. “Don’t let fear scare you from higher profits and more consistent success. Fear is the biggest reason farmers resist change. Just try a few fields. I don’t blame anyone for being wary and I’m not being disrespectful to anyone in the industry, but just because people have done the same thing for 50 years doesn’t make it right. What we do isn’t for everyone, and if you don’t want to keep doing the same thing, there is a path to productivity, profitability and consistency.” 

Convinced the path to long-term profitability is built on soil health, Martin believes he has found a means to remain sustainable for the next 25-plus years and regenerate soil. He urges growers to consider possibilities for change: “This is a way to completely transform soils and unleash the potential they have to provide power. There are so many more guys open to change who want to start down a soil health path. That’s where our operation has gone because we had enough of the old ways. There was no way we could have kept going down the old path.”

For more, see:

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Seeds of Discord: Crossing the Great Cover Crop Divide

Living the Dream: Honoring A Fallen Farmer

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