Small and Mid-sized Farm Sustainability Through Crop Diversity and Photosynthesis

2009 Annual Report for FNC08-717

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2008: $18,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2010
Region: North Central
State: North Dakota
Project Coordinator:

Small and Mid-sized Farm Sustainability Through Crop Diversity and Photosynthesis


Objective 1 - Create a plan of sustainability through increased soil health for small and mid-sized farms using solar based farming practices (cover crops, no-till, companion crops, aftermath grazing, etc). The Severson Farm created a sustainable farming plan with the help of USDANRCS and a three year EQIP contract. The contract combines cover crops, prescribed grazing, nutrient management and no-till in a comprehensive conservation plan. The group attended grazing, soil health, and cover crop workshops. A spring planning meeting was held with the soil health team and the Prairie Farm Pilot Project group.

Objective 2 - Convert the Severson’s 1,500 acre conventional, chemically dependent fossil fuel based farm to a sustainable, low input, carbon sequestered, and solar dependent farming unit and begin to transition some of those acres to organic production. The entire Severson farm was planted with a no-till box drill. No tillage was done on that farm resulting in a marked difference in fuel costs over the previous year. The straw and chaff from the combine was spread and left on the fields. Fifty acres were planted to hard red spring wheat without fertilizer to begin the organic production. No fungicides were used, herbicides were kept to a minimum, and chemical fertilizers were reduced, on the rest of the acreage.

Objective 3 - Test and record the findings of the applicable solar based practices on the mid-sized Heinze Organic Springs Farm, and the small–sized Abraham Abe’s Acres Farm. The Heinze farm signed an Organic EQIP contract with USDANRCS and will utilize the core practices of reduced tillage and cover crops. The Abrahams signed an EQIP contract for conservation and grazing practices. They continue their quest to make the small farm sustainable and conserve soil and water.

Objective 4 - Provide a research model to show sustainability on small and mid-sized farms by shifting from the use of fossil-fuel chemicals and fertilizer to crop diversity and photosynthesis (companion crops, cover crops, diverse rotations and nutrient cycling) to replenish soil and to combat pests. Winter rye and cover crops were planted with this fall. Field peas and hard red spring wheat will be included in the cropping plan next spring to provide diversity in the rotation beyond beans and corn. The sloughs and prevent plant acres were seeded to cocktail mix cover crops and mowed in the fall. The straw from the grain crops was not removed from the field as it had been in the past, but instead it was spread on the soil by the combine. The biggest challenge this year was the weather with a very late wet spring, followed by an unusually dry growing season, wet fall and early winter. Germination was poor in some cases, yields were down, and it was hard to plant all the cover crops.

The fuel savings from the entire no-till plan is significant. The comparison and numbers for the records will be completed next growing season. Using no-till planting with cover crops is a natural way to wean from chemicals. Although there is no silver bullet to instantly fix our chemically dependent, over worked soils we are seeing some measurable results from a number of diverse practices. We are changing the seeding method for cover crops to be able to spread them with the last pass over the field, i.e. the spreader mounted on the combine so that the seeds are spread and covered by the chaff, rather than planted in a separate operation. This will mean a more timely application as well as fuel savings.

The Seversons and the Abrahams will fence and cross fence their home farms. The Abrahams will install a livestock watering system to be part of their managed grazing plan. Val mar boxes and spreaders will be retrofitted on equipment to plant cover crops. Soil testing will be done. Composted manure will be spread in the fall. The Seversons will experiment with blowing or spreading small cover crops seeds on the growing soybeans, in order to have cover crops growing after the beans are harvested. In April we will participate in a soil health and summer work project planning day with the Prairie Farm Pilot Project group.

The Prairie Farm Pilot Project Field Day was held June 30, 2009 at the Bethany Prairie Farm rural Wimbledon, ND. The theme of Bethany Prairie is “one farm’s journey to sustainability”. This year’s Field Day was a showcase for Bethany Prairie Farm’s “Organic No-Till” and Kelly Severson’s “Sustainability through Diversity & Photosynthesis” NCR-SARE Farmer/Rancher Grants.

The registered attendance was 77 and included 24 farmers/ranchers, 5 RC&D Coordinators, 8 NRCS staff, 8 city dwellers, 3 ARS staff, 3 Carrington Research Extension personal, and 2 media representatives. Of those attending 27 were women, 25 were men, and 25 were youth. Participants came from North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Canada and West Africa. The USDA staff were the primary presenters for the workshops.

The workshops on Soil Health, Cover Crops, No-till, and Weeds, were presented in the field by Dr. Kris Nichols, Soil Microbiologist with the USDA-ARS, and Susan Samson-Liebig, Soil Quality Specialist with USDA-NRCS, and Fred Aziz, Area Resource Soil Scientist, NRCS, Jamestown. Linda Grotberg told of Bethany Prairie’s long range plans to build healthy soil to be able to grow healthy food.

The soil health workshops were held at 2 sites. Field #9 was observed “that while this is the poorest soil on the farm, the measures that are being taken to improve the soil quality was beginning to show some effect”. Field #2, third year tall lush multi species pasture was examined. Special note was made as to how much the soil was improved over just 3 years.

A prescribed grazing workshop was conducted during the wagon tour by Ron Wiederholt, Nutrient Management Specialist, Carrington Research Extension Center.

In the afternoon Kris Nichols and Susan Samson-Liebig showed examples and discussed the life in the soil. Using a student microscope, participants had an opportunity to see what is living below ground. There was also information about how management affects soil biology and other soil properties along with the use of compost and compost teas.

Lance Duey, Soil Scientist, Devils Lake, ND, presented a Power Point on the Web Soil Survey.

These afternoon workshops were held in Bethany Prairie School.

The Rodale Bio-mass Roller/Crimper was demonstrated by Steve Zwinger, Collaborator in the Rodale Institute Organic No-Till Project and Research Specialist-Agronomy, North Dakota State University, Carrington Research Extension Center. Dick Grotberg, Bethany Prairie Farm, was available for comments and questions.

Partners included: Sheyenne James RC&D Council, Burleigh Co Soil Conservation Dist, Stutsman Co Soil Conservation Dist, USDA-ARS, Carrington Research Extension Center, and USDA-NRCS.
Advertising included announcements in the NPSAS Germinator and The Wimbledon News, a feature story in the Valley City Times Record, state, regional, local email list serves, mailed personal invitations, flyers posted in USDA offices, Extension and local businesses, and word of mouth.

Future plans are to continue the annual Prairie Farm Pilot Project Field Day. We will encourage other partners to join us and will offer to host state and regional educational events. The goal is to make each of our farms a demonstration site for innovative ideas, ongoing research, and applicable practices.