Agroecology Farmer Profiles

Regenerating the Soil Transformed this Indiana Farm

When yogurt maker Dannon (a part of Danone North America) announced in 2016 that it will transition its merchandise to non-GMO verification, the firm needed to discover farmers to offer non-GMO feed for the dairy cows that produce milk for its yogurt. This was no straightforward process, as a result of the vast majority of feed in the U.S. is produced from genetically modified corn and soybeans.

One in every of the farmers the company signed up with is Rick Clark, a fifth-generation farmer in Warren County, Indiana, situated in the west-central a part of the state, between the Wabash River and the Illinois state line. Clark’s family has lived on the farm since the 1880s, and at present the farm encompasses 7,000 acres.

Whereas Clark produces non-GMO corn and alfalfa for Dannon, as well as profitable cash crops, including non-GMO soybeans for a Cargill facility in Lafayette, Indiana, he does rather more than that: he has additionally developed a singular system for building soil health. Throughout his property, Clark uses regenerative practices including numerous crop rotations, no-till strategies, and cover cropping, and he is striving toward the robust process of mixing no-till practices with natural certification.

Clark is considered one of a small but growing number of farmers who are adopting regenerative agricultural practices to build soil well being. (Others embrace Gabe Brown in North Dakota and David Brandt in Ohio, who have been featured in David Montgomery’s guide about regenerative agriculture, Rising a Revolution.) His farm gives a practical, confirmed example of how regenerative farming strategies can rework agriculture.

Rick Clark curler crimps fixation clover, crimson clover, oats, radish, and peas. He will plant corn right after this process.

“Diversification drives the system,” he says. “I care deeply about building soil health and will sacrifice yield to maintain soil health.”

Huge brands and organizations are paying attention. In 2017, Clark was honored as Dannon’s Sustainable Farmer of the Yr. More just lately, Land O’ Lakes honored him with an Outstanding Sustainability Award, and he was additionally a regional winner of the American Soybean Association’s Conservation Legacy Award.

Greg Downing, an agronomist with Cisco Farm Seed, who has labored with Clark for a number of years, calls Clark’s commitment to soil well being “150 percent.” “I think Rick saw early on that building soil health was simple: that when you have something growing all the time and are doing crop rotations, you are doing good things to the soil,” Downing says. “You are going to regenerate a lot of life, biology, as well as minerals.”

In accordance with Downing, a key to Clark’s success is his willingness to experiment and discover the greatest methods of doing things. “There are no barriers for Rick,” he says. “There is no textbook saying you should do this and shouldn’t do that. For him, there’s always better, there’s always more, and finding out how to do more. He’s an experimenter with capital ‘E.’ When you talk about the phrase ‘thinking outside the box,’ well, I don’t really think Rick has ever been in a box.”

Because of his success, Clark’s farm was also chosen, along with 15 different farms in the U.S., as research topics for soil well being specialists as a part of Danone North America’s $6 million soil well being analysis challenge. The challenge aims to determine methods to regenerate soils and provide coaching in soil health greatest practices to farmers.

Tina Owens, senior director of agriculture at Danone North America, cites Clark as certainly one of the venture’s “shining examples.” “This is real on-the-ground change we are talking about, and we have seen first-hand that Rick exemplifies that level of change,” Owens says. “When we talk to other farmers and other growers in our network, we refer to Rick as an example of the right things to do.”

Clark is glad to share his information of regenerative agriculture with other farmers. He’s typically asked to talk at conferences and introduced at the Nationwide No-Until Conference this previous January in Indianapolis. As soil well being positive aspects traction amongst farmers nationwide, Clark is assured that others can succeed as he has. “I’m just a farmer in Indiana,” he says, “and if other farmers have a plan and care about building soil health, they can achieve these things, too.”

Soil-Friendly Practices, Like ‘Farming Green’

Clark says he discovered soil well being practices from a neighbor. “We conversed about what he was doing, and when I had the opportunity to have total control of the farm [in 2010], we switched everything to no-till and cover crops,” he says.

Moreover, Clark has planted all non-GMO crops since 2014, when a nearby dairy requested him to grow non-GMO corn for feed, leading to his partnership with Dannon. Non-GMO seed is cheaper and yields as much as GMO seed, Clark says. (Because typical row crop agriculture is so dominated by genetically modified seed, there’s little or no analysis into the advantages of rising non-GMO seed.) Beyond the economic incentives, Clark says, “I just prefer to not plant GMO seed, and I want to have a symbiotic relationship with Mother Nature.”

Clark has additionally put in place quite a few practices aimed toward growing soil well being, which he defines merely as “decreasing inputs and increasing yield.” “If your inputs are going down, and your yields are going up, how can you not be building soil health?” he says. “That is exactly what this farm is doing.”

First, he rotates his crops. In addition to adding nutrients corresponding to nitrogen to the soil, crop rotation interrupts pest and disease cycles, decreasing weeds, insects, and the need for chemical pesticides. One-third of Clark’s farm is in a three-year rotation with corn, soybeans, and wheat. One other third is in a four-year crop rotation—corn, soybeans, wheat, and alfalfa—for a dairy that produces milk for Dannon. And the last third is in transition to natural.

Secondly, Clark practices no-till farming. By not plowing, which disturbs the soil, the farming technique reduces soil erosion and sequesters carbon, which mitigates climate change. He has practiced no-till farming with corn for 10 years and soybeans for 15 years.

And eventually, Clark has planted numerous “cocktails” of cover crops for the last 10 years. Each fall earlier than the next spring’s planting, he crops a mix he calls “gunslinger” on his corn fields. The combination consists of 5 crops that every performs a essential perform for soil health: Haywire forage oats construct biomass to protect the soil; sorghum sudangrass promotes the progress of useful mycorrhizal fungi; tillage radish helps break up compacted soil; and Austrian winter peas and balansa clover add nitrogen, an important nutrient. On his soybean fields, he crops cowl crops akin to cereal rye in the fall earlier than planting soybeans the next spring.

Field of cover crops including a mix of oats, radish, peas, fixation clover, and sorghum sudangrass.

A subject of canopy crops including a mix of oats, radish, peas, fixation clover, and sorghum sudangrass.

As together with his essential money crops, Clark emphasizes the importance of cover crop variety. “I’m going to put out as many things as I possibly can in that cocktail for diversification. “We can fall into a trap of a monoculture in cover crops just like we can fall into a trap of monoculture in cash crops.”

He crops corn and soybeans immediately into the cover crops in the spring, a apply he calls “farming green.” “We will not plant our corn or soybean crops unless it is into green growing cover crops,” he says.

He has realized many benefits from farming green. Planting cover crops has helped build organic matter and improve soil well being, which has improve crop yields. “We’re extremely profitable,” Clark says of his farm. The apply has additionally improved water infiltration, as a result of rain penetrates into the soil as an alternative of operating off, and it has created a protecting “armor” for the soil by including nitrogen, stopping erosion, and smothering and out competing weeds.

Corn planted directly into Rick's cereal rye cover crop in the spring.

Corn planted immediately into Clark’s cereal rye cowl crop in the spring.

Since he started farming green, Clark has dramatically decreased the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. “We use no seed treatments, no insecticides, and no fungicides,” he says. “We are to the point where we have nearly eliminated synthetic fertilizers. We only use a little nitrogen on our non-GMO crops. So our cost of production is extremely low.”

Transition to Organic

After decreasing chemical inputs, the next logical step can be to develop organic, and Clark is doing that for the problem. “I also want to continue to make the farm better for the next generation,” he says.

He’s transitioning 2,000 acres and could have 400 acres certified organic this month. He plans to grow natural corn using his system of cover crops and no-till.

Clark admits that training no-till in organic is a challenge. Few natural farmers apply no-till farming; many continue to plow their fields to remove weeds. “Some people think [no-till organic] sounds crazy, but that’s normal for me,” Clark says. “If I can get this figured out, it should be a pretty big deal.”

Many farmers who convert to organic face challenges promoting their transitional crops, but Clark has a bonus: “I can use alfalfa as my transition acres,” he says. “It is easy to grow, and I can sell it to the dairy.”

Clark is confident he can produce robust yields of organic corn this yr, his first producing a licensed natural crop. “At $10 a bushel [paid for organic corn], that is quite a return on your investment,” he says. Typical corn presently earns around $four.23 per bushel.

Regenerative, Not Sustainable, Agriculture

Regenerative agriculture, with its give attention to soil health, is a serious development, and Clark is on the vanguard. However he doesn’t use the phrase “sustainable” to describe his practices. “That means staying the same,” he says. “I prefer the word ‘regenerative,’ and I have a systematic approach to regenerative farming.”

Rick Clark holding a tillage radish cover crop.

Clark holding a tillage radish cover crop.

Regenerative agriculture is about creating stability, he explains. “The fungus-to-bacteria ratio is getting in balance. Predator-to-prey insects [are] getting in balance. That is why I don’t need to use insecticides,” he says. “I don’t have the imbalance of corn rootworm eating my roots—I have the predator that preys on corn rootworm in my system.”

With the United Nations Meals and Agricultural Group lately warning that greater than 90 % of the earth’s soils could possibly be degraded by 2050, there’s an urgent need for the soil-building practices of Rick Clark and like-minded farmers.

“We have got to figure out a way to stop this erosion and losing our topsoil, because it’s not coming back,” Clark stated. “I hope that I can build a system that can be adopted across different regions. I’m not trying say my system is better than anyone else’s; I’m just saying that the system I’m working on is working for me and my farm, and I think it could work for other farms. We can all make a difference for being good stewards of the land, building soil health, and being conservationists.”

A model of this article appeared in The Organic & Non-GMO Report.

Prime photograph: Rick Clark standing in his subject of crimson and balansa clover cover crops. (All pictures courtesy of Rick Clark.)