What Makes An Excellent Farmer?

Lee Rinehart

 

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.