What Makes An Excellent Farmer?
You couldn’t ask for a better day for a farm field day. August 25th saw the gathering of over a hundred farmers at Alvin Peachy’s farm in Allensville, PA, at the third annual CROPP Organic Valley Field Day. This year’s event emphasized organic crop and forage production and producing high quality forages to meet the needs of productive livestock.
Among the lineup of experts was Dr. Silvia Abel-Caines, Ruminant Nutritionist with Organic Valley, who gave an informative and hands-on demonstration in feeding nutrient dense crops, paying particular attention to nutrient requirements of lactating cattle. Jeff Moyer, Director of the Rodale Institute and long time farm manager of the Institute’s certified organic farm, led participants on a crop walk discussing organic crop production methods.
Field day goers enjoyed a pasture and crop walk with Alvin Peachy, owner of the Peachy Farm and David Miller of Advancing Eco-Agriculture, where attention was paid to a soil pit demonstration, focused on soil management in the root zone of growing crops and the benefits of diverse cropping systems to advance the biological capacity of soils for sustainable cropping.
As always, PCO was on site to discuss organic transitions and certification requirements. PCO engaged established farmers, particularly the many dairy producers who are currently making the transition to organic production. A high- light of PCO’s presentations and discus- sions was the Transition Membership Program, a high demand initiative designed to assist producers through the transition process with one-on-one sup-port through farm visits, technical assistance, and materials review.The late morning and afternoon sessions included breakout workshops and discussions, demonstrations, and crops walks focused on technical information and innovative practices, where participants could have conversations with presenters and each other. The day was given a kick start with a keynote presentation by John Kempf, the founder and CEO of Advancing Eco-Agriculture, who set the stage with an in-depth discussion of the difference between an “good farmer” and an “extraordinary farmer.” What ensued was a journey into farming practices from the perspective of a well-traveled consult- ant and expert in the field of biological and regenerative farming.
“It’s all in your head”
John began his career farming in the Amish community, where he developed a broad approach to farming substantiated on plant immunity and how plants interact and respond to mineral nutrition based on soil microbiology. His own farm was his learning environment, and now John shares his knowledge with others.
John’s observations have given him some insight into what takes good farmers to the level of extraordinary farmers. When we think of what separates the good from the extraordinary we usually talk about practices — what the farmers does or the inputs he buys to make his crops or livestock perform extraordinarily. “But,” says John, “one piece we don’t talk about enough is how we think as farmers.” The big differences are most often not related to agronomics but how the farmer thinks and manages.
So, how do extraordinary farmers think differently? Consider two farms side by side with the same soils and crops that consistently yield different results. This happens all the time. John suggests that the farm with better results is farmed by someone who spends most of his time thinking about management while cultivating an attitude that fosters adaptability, flexibility, and the expectation of change. Every year the extraordinary farmer looks at his list and ask the same questions over and over, and there are some key points in this activity of reflection that points the way to being extraordinary.
Extraordinary farmers think differently about money. They focus on gross revenue; the top line without spending extreme amounts to do so, and their rule of thumb is a minimum 3X return on gross expenditures. John notes that so many farmers are focused on cost and how to save money, but “you cannot save yourself successful,” says John.
“Perfection is not optional,” says John. “When you face life without a challenge you need to make one, and this will get you to the next level of production. So when in doubt, think. The applied and passionate human mind is the rarest thing today.” The best way to predict the future is to create it yourself, John says. There’s plenty you can do about production and income if you are willing to do it, he says. “But if you think something is impossible, it is then impossible for you. It’s all in your head.”
Producing high energy forages
Consider this story. A farmer has grain-fed Holsteins and wanted to switch to 100% grassfed in one year. Everyone knows this is a steep learning curve and if not done thoughtfully can result in a train wreck. What John experienced and learned on farms switching to grassfed are the some principles that hold true for forages, corn, and other crops as well.
First, protein is never a problem on a grass farm. It’s energy that is deficient. Energy is expressed and measured in terms of sugars, but another component that is often undervalued is fat content. Through some farm consultations, John became interested in seeing how a farmer could increase sugar over time by measuring brix. Instead of applying soil amendments he used foliar applications every 2- 4 weeks throughout the summer to boost sugar content. What he found is that foliar applications are essentially a “ratchet” to increase the growing potential of plants throughout growing season. Micronutrient foliars are designed to increase the photosynthetic rate of plants, and over time you can get a sugar production spike of 6–8, up from a baseline of from 2–3 on the brix scale.
In five to ten days after a foliar application the sugar drops down to its base- line, maybe around 2 or 3 on the brix scale. As foliars are applied throughout the growing season, John notices when the sugars decrease the base line is a bit higher, perhaps at 4. After another application, the brix reading goes up to 12, then back to 6. This ratchet effect results in increasing sugar content over time, making the baseline higher and higher throughout the growing season. Depend- ing on soil quality and consistently of applications it can take from months to years to increase the sugar content base- line of forages (and other crops).
John attributes this sugar increase in plants to the foliar application’s ability to ramp up the plant’s photosynthetic rate. As the plant becomes more efficient at photosynthesis, through having adequate nutrient and mineral nutrition, more sugars are produced. The benefit is not merely increased forage quality, though that is a key goal, but the long term health and resiliency of the soil.
When plants make more sugar than they need, sugar is partitioned through the plant to leaves, fruit, and roots. Most importantly for soil health, half of the sugars that are portioned to the roots are exuded into the soil to feed soil microorganisms. Having a healthy crop, says John, is the best way to build soil organic matter. Crops that are healthy, having been managed in this manner, become stress proof and resilient against insect and disease invasion.