The Old Testament of the Bible refers to turning swords into plowshares. The emergence of no-till and cover crop farming practices on farms like Sheldon Luehmann’s near Altura might mean that farmers might soon be able to turn their plowshares into something else entirely.
Luehmann is just 26, a relatively tender age as farmers go. However, he already is confident enough to begin experimenting with unconventional techniques. For one, when preparing to plant seeds he does not till the soil. Instead, no-tilling employs the leftover biomass of cover crops (in Luehmann’s case, rye) that are planted before the cash crop (soybeans). In essence, Luehmann plants the soybean seeds through the dead biomass instead of straight into the dirt. The only machine that disturbs the soil is the planter itself, cutting small furrows in which to drop the seeds.
The practice remains novel among American farmers, with just over 20 percent of cropland considered no-till as of 2017, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.
Luehmann is still getting the hang of it after two years. “[I’m] definitely not an expert at it,” he said.
Despite being a neophyte, he was helped along in his farm conversion by the Winona County Soil and Water Conservation District, which offered both technical advice and financial incentive for Luehmann to make the switch. The SWCD is including Luehmann’s success story on its self-guided “cover crop tour” where farmers who have participated in the program hold open houses of sorts for curious visitors.
With several seasons of no-till now under his belt, the benefits are clear to Luehmann: half the costs for labor, machinery and fuel consumption — if not less. Although he does get help sometimes, Luehmann’s farm is basically a one-man operation, he said, so the simplification of things is extremely helpful. There has been a minute drop in crop yield — Luehmann said five percent or less — but that is counterbalanced by the precipitous drop in overhead costs.
The USDA says the cost savings are shared by farmers across America: about 282 million gallons of diesel fuel are saved annually by no-till operators.
Apart from direct savings in dollars, Luehmann takes pride in saving his family’s land from erosion. Erosion to a farmer is more than just an ecological danger; the topsoil is their livelihood. When the rain sweeps away good dirt, it’s like a police officer watching their squad car get flooded out, or a baker watching all their flour disappear downstream.
Luehmann said the benefits of no-till farming were evident just a few days prior, when the area underwent a three-inch rainfall and he could see his soil staying put even as his neighbors’ was washed out. It was likely a vast difference from two years earlier, when he felt compelled to try the new technique after discovering a culvert that had been completely buried in washed-out soil. It threatened the viability of the farm his family has worked for five generations.
“That kind of lit the fire for me to sell my plow, my tillage equipment and plant cover crops — to slow that down,” Luehmann said. “Because if that keeps happening … in 20, 30 years, what are my kids going to farm?”