Don’t ask, don’t till

Strips of dry switch grass and mowed stubble alternate over the rolling hills of a small Missouri farm, scattered in early September with, among other crops, mature sorghum, juvenile walnut saplings and winter wheat barely poking young sprouts out of the ground.

You wouldn’t expect an elementary school principal to maintain such a diverse patchwork, but it’s all the project of Vance Vanderwerken, teacher of agriculture and 16-year principal of John Glenn Elementary School in Savannah, Mo.

“I guess you could say it’s a hobby,” Vanderwerken says, his eyes following the curvature of the field. “It’s definitely something I want my daughters to grow to appreciate, which I know they do already.”

Vanderwerken’s farm is a patchwork of land he maintains under the Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Resource Program (CRP), which provides financial incentives for farmers to incorporate erosion management practices into their planting.

Soil erosion is largely the product of tillage, typically the lower cost solution to killing weeds that can decrease crop yields. When fields are tilled, weeds are uprooted, but the soil is free to be carried by wind or rain into the region’s watershed.

Under the 2008 farm bill, Vanderwerken receives up to $80 per acre in rental payments, which support his no-till practices, provided he maintains a vegetative crop cover on his land year round.

This year, though, given the drought, farmers were offered leniency to mow strips of grass from their fields and bale hay for cattle feed. Fresh bales lined along freshly-mowed tracts of land show Vanderwerken has taken advantage of this.

“Otherwise we’d just have to start slaughtering the animals,” he said.

The Conservation Resource Program began in 1985, following years of crippling drought that began in 1980. By enrolling land into CRP, farmers could cash in on rental payments distributed to landowners that met soil conservation requirements.

Over fifty percent of Missouri’s total CRP land is found in a group of five counties in northwestern Missouri: Andrew, Gentry, Dekalb, Davies and Harrison. According to conservationist Rodney Saunders, an estimated sixty percent of farms in his Andrews County district are practicing no-till, including Vanderwerken’s.

“There are lots of tillable acres up here,” Saunders said, “but of course there is some marginal land as you get away from the river.”

Marginal land can include nutrient-poor soil, as well as land deemed at high risk for soil erosion. Much of Vanderwerken’s land lies in the flood zone of the One Hundred and Two River.

“When you have land along these rolling hills, that would be considered highly erosive,” Saunders said. “And so under CRP you would definitely see no-till management happening there.”

Saunders said no-till is gaining slow but steady popularity with farmers. He noted that it requires a new mentality to switch to no-till management, despite  research indicating proper no-till management does not decrease yields.

–Cade Cleavelin, edited by Sonja Gjerde

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One response to “Don’t ask, don’t till

  1. Interesting play on words for the headline. I would suggest that you might mention that farmers have to obligate to this program for a period of 10 to 15 years. During periods of high prices (such as we are experiencing now), that’s a commitment.

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