By Ryan Heiniger

The Movement Starts With “Farming Weird” And Is Accelerated By Our Community

January 4, 2022

Most columns published in early January will contain a list of resolutions or outlooks for the New Year, but not this one.  Not because I don’t have lists and hopes for 2022, quite the contrary. Instead, I’d like to spotlight, thanks in part due to some great threads on social media, the role of community perception on adoption – or reluctance – of regenerative agriculture practices. 

In one notable example, a farmer commented he was the “laughing stock of the neighborhood” when his corn got significantly damaged by a late spring frost. This farmer has adopted strip-till and cover crops whereas most of his neighbors are still conventional and they suffered little to no damage from the late frost. This was a fairly widespread occurrence in the Upper Midwest during May 2021. However, like any good novel there is always at least one plot twist, right? As the 2021 growing season played out, the predictable summer rains became unpredictable and crop stress quickly became a serious yield limiting issue. It is well-documented that in addition to helping increase rain infiltration, cover crops can also help keep the soil cooler and reduce evaporative loss from hot dry summer winds. Fast forward to harvest and despite the frost impact and the panic the soil and water conserving practices may have temporarily caused, the corn crop turned out to be his second-best yield ever. {insert mic drop}

Resilience.

There has been a lot written and studied about ‘early adopters’ and the risks they have taken but the part rarely discussed is the reality of community perception.  This is especially true when things go wrong or are perceived by crop appearance to have gone wrong during the daily neighborhood windshield tours.  Rightfully so, there has been a significant investment made by the public and private sector that shares a desire to accelerate regenerative ag practice adoption to primarily offer increased financial incentives. However, it is nearly impossible to de-risk a farmer’s social capital and potential downside of being the laughingstock. Perhaps this is a generational attribute (I’m a GenX), but it feels like the conservation agriculture movement has awoken and energized a subset of farmers that not only are willing to take the risk, but they have a unique sense of pride by having their fields look different. This is where the inspiration starts.

Movement.

Indiana farmer and well-known innovator Jason Mauck has coined the phrase “Farm Weird” to describe his approach to unconventional crop and livestock production.  His winter wheat and soybean relay combinations are eye-grabbing to say the least and is worth following him on Twitter @jasonmauck1.  His catchy phrase even has its own hashtag.  I’ll go out on a limb and guess the local coffee shop had quite a laugh the first year he experimented with this trial but with trial, error and perseverance, his now annual harvest tweets showcasing yield monitor stats have undoubtedly had the last laugh.

Paradigm Shift.

Put yourself in a farmer’s boots with the mindset of wanting to experiment but not necessarily for the entire county to see. Thus the logical location for some trial and error is your field farthest from sight and for sure away from any major road.  After all, you wouldn’t want to be responsible for neighbor Larry driving into the ditch while trying to decipher what you did in your field.  At least if or when something goes awry, only the deer and satellites will ever see it when you tried this new approach on the back 40.  In December 2021, Iowa Soybean Association who has a long track record of promoting and delivering conservation ag practices, launched the Front 40 | Home (iowafrontforty.com) program which is “a continued celebration of our state’s conservation champions, at the forefront of sustainable soil and water management practices.”  This is another great step to bringing increased visibility to those pioneers and practices, both symbolically and in reality, shift these practices to a visible location so others can see, study and emulate.  On a personal farming note, I’m proud to report that two of our most visible fields, both along a paved road to the elevator, have cover crops for 2021 and 2022. With a little luck and support from Mother Nature, we will plant soybeans “green” into 36 inch plus tall cereal rye in late April.

September 20, 2021 – Harvested corn field and one bushel per acre cereal rye cover crop incorporated with vertical tillage tool.
October 11, 2021 – Cereal rye off to a great start after catching a timely rain in late September.

Full Circle

What gives me optimism for continued momentum in this area is when others in the community take notice and take action – all stemming from that one field that looked “weird”.  A question we all need to ask ourselves for our individual and collective regenerative ag programs are: “how are we supporting the entire community to de-risk adoption and embrace change?” or “What other members in that community are there to help connect the dots and realize they have even greater potential to see more acres be transformed?” Perhaps it will be the agronomist who doesn’t have that original innovator farmer as a client but is curious to learn more about the techniques used so she can be prepared to offer advice when called upon. Or maybe it will be the brand-new soil conservationist working for USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service that has heard about these new strategies for soil and water conservation but now they have a living laboratory and possible farmer mentor in their new work territory. Last but not least, the recently retired farmer who will be renting out his acres and knows the land is a big part of his legacy. Who does he turn to that has a proven reputation of taking care of the soil, water, wildlife while maintaining or improving a farm’s overall productivity?  Let’s commit in 2022 to doing our best to lending our support so the regenerative ag farmer, the one who harvests a special sense of pride in their ground being green in in the dead of winter. The one who has our community’s support to grow their operation and accelerate the Movement.

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