Zenner Family Farms

Zenner Family Farms

Zenner Family Farms

Russ and Cathy Zenner, Zenner Family Farms, Genesee, Idaho. Credit: Russ Zenner.

Springs are getting wetter, while the late summer, fall and winter have become drier. We had some very wet springs in ‘11 and ‘12. The spring of 2011 was by far the wettest I’ve ever experienced in my career. The seeding season was so wet that we were on soils when we shouldn’t have been. There were a few guys who waited clear until June to plant, which is very late for our county, and the soils were still too wet.

Russ & Kathy Zenner

Zenner Family Farms

Northwest Region | Genesee, ID

Main Product: Grains

Scale: 2800 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Increase crop diversity, add dynamic rotation, integrate livestock and intensive grazing of cover crops.

This story based on a 2013 interview, with a 2021 update.

Russ and Kathy Zenner have been farming in the Palouse Region of Idaho near the Washington–Idaho border in Genesee for more than forty years. Located about a hundred miles south of Spokane, WA, Zenner Family Farms includes ground that was first farmed by Russ’ grandfather in 1935. Kathy and Russ joined the family business in 1970 and took over management of the farm fourteen years later. In 2012, Russ’s cousin Clint Zenner and his wife Alicia took on some management responsibilities, becoming the fourth generation to carry on the farming tradition of the Zenner Family in Idaho.

The Palouse is a unique region of steep rolling hills in eastern Washington and western Idaho. The rich soils and winter rains produce some of the highest dryland wheat yields in the nation. But the topography, winter rains and intensive tillage typical of past wheat production also produced some of the worst soil erosion in the nation — as much as 100 tons annual topsoil loss per acre on the steepest slopes. In the 1970s, Russ became concerned about the level of erosion at Zenner Farms because of the negative impacts on soil quality and the off-farm impacts to water quality. An early innovator of reduced tillage grain production in the region, he completed a transition to a direct-seeded, no-till cropping system that greatly reduced soil erosion on the farm by 2000.

Today, Russ manages 2,800 acres of dryland direct-seeded crops in a three-year rotation of winter wheat, spring grains and spring broadleaf crops. Winter wheat, spring wheat, spring barley, garbanzos, lentils, peas, oilseeds and grass seed are the farm’s main cash crops. Within each year of the rotation, Russ has a variety of crop types to choose from. Winter crops include soft white, club and hard red winter wheat varieties for grain or certified seed production; among the spring grain options are durum, soft white, hard white and hard red wheat varieties, malting and feed barleys and corn. Broadleaf crops include Austrian winter peas, yellow and green peas, garbanzos, lentils and oilseeds. Many considerations go into choosing a specific crop for each phase, but the overall goal is to increase the yield potential of the following crop. Over the years, the crop rotation has shifted to an emphasis on spring-seeded crops in an effort to prevent both weed and disease problems in the winter wheat crop. Other important factors in crop selection include soil type, potential markets, seasonal workloads and weather.

Russ markets about eighty percent of his crops through the Pacific Northwest Farmers’ Cooperative, an important U.S. marketer of value-added grains and dry pulses to national and international markets. Most of the remaining crops are marketed through Shepherd’s Grain, a farmers’ marketing alliance that sells specialty grains and flours to regional markets in the Pacific Northwest. All the growers that supply Shepherd’s Grain are sustainable producers certified by the Food Alliance.

Over his lifetime on the farm, Russ has noticed some changes in weather variability and extremes. “I don’t think we’re seeing the temperature extremes that we saw earlier in my career, which is a benefit in a lot of regards,” he says. “Twice in my lifetime we’ve had lows of 50 below [degrees Fahrenheit] in the Genesee Flats, once when I was just a child in the winter of 1950, and then again in the winter of 1968–69. I don’t know if we’ve seen 20 below since then. It used to be in some of the summers, during late July and early August, we would see quite a few days of over 100 degrees. It just seems like temperatures have moderated some. This has not caused any change in our management, it’s just an observation.”

More challenging have been changes in seasonal rainfall patterns. More rainfall in the spring and drier conditions in late summer and fall have complicated crop management at Zenner Family Farms, particularly because of the emphasis on spring-seeded crops. During the record-breaking wet spring of 2011, Russ created some soil compaction problems by planting on soils that were extremely wet, and he has been struggling to restore those soils ever since. The compacted soils may be promoting increased soil-borne disease.

Russ says that wetter springs have increased the incidence of leaf diseases in the region. “This inland Pacific Northwest region has always had pretty significant rust pressure on small grains,” he explains. “Three years ago [2011] was the most significant year for rust, but to some extent, there has been a fair amount of disease pressure through the last couple of years. Whether that’s weather-related or not, I don’t know, but the amount of fungicide used in this region has, I would say, risen dramatically in the last few years.”

Disease management has always been a challenge in direct-seeded grains in the Palouse region. As Russ transitioned the farm to direct seeding, he remembers that increased disease was a continuing issue: “In most of the things we tried, we ran into disease problems. Early on, it was because we did not have enough rotation diversity, and this still may be a big part of it. We’re doing a pretty good job with our no-till system, improving organic matter, but we’re not experiencing an improvement in nutrient cycling, which was one of my major goals.” Russ had hoped that through improved nutrient cycling would reduce production costs by reducing his reliance on purchased fertilizers.

“Longer term, no-till is not providing the results that we initially thought we might see,” Russ explains. “We’re still trying to identify what’s holding us back. Part of it is disease. The other part of it may be the amount of manmade chemistry we’re using in these systems. Many of us doing long-term no-till have wondered about this. I’ve questioned glyphosate, even though it is an integral tool in our no-till systems. We’ve got soils now that had twenty to twenty-five years of repeated glyphosate applications. There’s no work being done on long-term implications of glyphosate on soil biology, and how it may possibly impact root diseases, so we just don’t know. There are a lot of interactions of this manmade chemistry in the soil that we just don’t understand.”

Concerns about overall performance of the no-till system, plus changes in seasonal rainfall patterns, have got Russ thinking about redesigning the crop rotation to increase crop diversity and increase the proportion of fall-seeded broadleaf crops. “Years ago, we adjusted our rotations to reduce peak disease pressure in these no-till cropping systems,” Russ explains. “We’re planting less winter wheat than we did twenty years ago. Where it used to be 50 percent of our seeded acreage was winter wheat, we’re now down to about a third. That means two-thirds of the farm is seeded in the spring, and that’s a problem if it’s too wet.”

But this plan carries some uncertainties as well, because the drier conditions in late summer and fall could complicate fall planting. According to Russ, “The late summer and early fall have been drier than during the first half of my career. That’s made it somewhat challenging to get good crop establishment on fall-seeded crops. “

As weather challenges increase, Russ appreciates the flexibility created by the diverse crop rotation he has developed for the farm. “Say for instance a wet spring has delayed planting, we will maybe cut back on the garbanzo acres and plant more peas or lentils instead,” Russ says. “Garbanzos are the longest-maturing summer crop we have in our mix, so we can run into harvest risks in September if the crop is planted too late. Peas and lentils mature more quickly. Same way with spring grain; spring barley matures much more quickly than spring wheat. So if we need to, we can plant barley instead of wheat. And we can select from different maturity dates within the barley to fit the time available for production of the crop.”

Russ is also interested to see if there are diversity benefits to the reintegration of livestock on the farm. The newest members of the management team, Clint and Alicia Zenner, have introduced a beef cattle herd that is being managed with intensive grazing of cover crops. Russ sees a lot of potential soil quality benefits associated with grazing cover crops, both from the additional crop diversity and the addition of manure to croplands. Although the cattle have only been on the farm one year, soil structure under the grazed cover crops has improved noticeably. Russ is looking forward to finding out how the grazed cover crops affect the yield and quality of subsequent grain crops.

Producing high-quality crops is an important goal at Zenner Family Farms. “I’m one of the Shepherd’s Grain growers,” says Russ. “If we can improve soil health, organic matter and nutrient cycling, we’re going to be able to improve the nutrient density of our grains. I’m certain there will be a premium in the marketplace if we can prove our products are healthier. And to me, that would be a significant motivator to help change cropping systems management in this country.” Russ is frustrated with the way that federal agricultural programs have discouraged sustainable food production. “The major portion of income transfer from the taxpayer to the producer has gone traditionally to a handful of crops. It does not encourage production diversity or reward sustainable resource management.”

Russ feels strongly that government programs should encourage more nutrient output per acre. “We need to be trying to strive to improve the inherent nutritional value of the crops that come off of our ground,” he says. “There is very little work, or even talk, about that. I think we lack the leadership on a national scale to recognize the incredible resource this country has had in the topsoil, in the water. That’s the whole function of agriculture: to sustain humans. Why are we not more focused on maximizing the nutritional output of these cropping systems? Why aren’t we using agriculture to improve human health and cut down the incredible medical costs associated with poor diet and poor nutrition, rather than relying on additives? I think there are more efficient ways to do it. I think if the taxpayer would demand their investment go in these areas, we’d be much better off.”

Thinking about future challenges, Russ is unsure about the availability of new knowledge and technologies to effectively manage climate risk. He knows from experience that crop diversity and no-till soil management buffer yield variability from precipitation extremes. And he thinks that federally subsidized production insurance programs have been and will continue to be an important agricultural risk management tool, particularly for the transition to the next generation of farmers who have assumed high debt loads. But Russ is concerned about the lack of research and development efforts focused on agricultural adaptation. “I think the U.S. is behind many other countries in the world. We’ve been to Australia several times. The first time I went there, in 2005, we visited a research station in Horsham, Victoria. There were several publications there already on climate change implications for production agriculture. I think we’re trying to catch up now. I think we’re behind some other countries, and that’s a little bit frustrating. There just hasn’t been the push to do it, I guess. I would say that would probably be one of the things that I see as maybe a limitation.”

Despite these concerns, Russ and Kathy have continued to welcome the next generation into family business.  Their daughter-in-law, Janine, sources garbanzos from Zenner Family Farms for Zucca Hummus, a business that she founded in 2012.  Today, Zucca Hummus has grown into a line of food products available in over 150 stores in the Northwest region. 

In 2015, Russ and Kathy completed transitioning farm operations to his cousin Clint and his wife, Alicia.  Russ and Clint continue to work together to explore the potential to graze cover crops, use companion planting, and add more perennials and more fall-seeded crops to increase crop diversity on the farm with the goal of increasing the number of days of the year with living roots in the ground. In 2019, Zenner Family Farms joined the University of Idaho’s Landscapes in Transition project which explores how crop diversification can enhance the resilience of dryland farming systems.

Russ has not noticed much of a change in weather patterns over the last decade. Crop production reached historic highs in the region in 2020, but yields on the farm are running well below average in the record-breaking 2021 drought. 

Russ has long been recognized as an innovative leader in sustainable dryland agriculture in the Pacific Northwest. A 1990 winner of the Latah Soil and Water Conservation District’s Conservation Stewardship Award, Russ has been actively involved in sustainable agriculture research and education over the years through collaborations with universities and the USDA Agricultural Research Service. He is a founding member of the Pacific Northwest Direct Seed Association, which promotes the development of direct seed-cropping systems. Zenner Farms was profiled as a model U.S. sustainable farm in the National Academy of Sciences publication, Toward Sustainable Agriculture Systems for the 21st Century.  In 2022, Russ’ life-long commitment to innovating sustainable agriculture practices in Idaho was recognized with a Governor’s Award for Excellence in Agriculture: Environmental Stewardship.

 

Lundberg Family Farms

Lundberg Family Farms

Lundberg Family Farms

Bryce Lundberg, Lundberg Family Farms. Credit: Paolo Vescia Photography

It just seems like we used to have a lot more regular storms that would come through. They weren’t five or six inches of rain or ten feet of snow type storms, they were just regular, consistent rain patterns. Now it seems like there isn’t such a thing. It’s either really wet, or really dry.

Bryce Lundberg

Lundberg Family Farms

Southwest Region | Richvale, CA

Main Product: Grains

Scale: 1500 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Shift to shorter season cultivars, increase field equipment, purchase production insurance, carbon farm planning.

“‘Leave the land better than you found it,’ was one of those phrases we heard often when we were younger,” says Bryce Lundberg, a member of the third generation of his family to produce, process and market rice in the Sacramento Valley of California. Bryce and his brother Eric, together with their wives Jill and Heidi, have grown rice on about 1,500 acres since 1985. Today, they are one of about 40 local farms who produce rice for Lundberg Family Farms on about 20,000 acres near Richvale.

Lundberg Family Farms supports a network of growers using organic and eco-farming practices that cultivate soil health, enhance biological diversity and reduce or eliminate the need to use synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.1 These practices include crop rotation, cover cropping, innovative water management and soil incorporation of crop residues. Lundberg Family Farms growers also use practices that benefit wildlife, for example, by salvaging the eggs of waterfowl nesting on their farms in spring2 and flooding their fields in winter to provide rich overwintering grounds for waterfowl.

These efforts to promote biodiversity extend to the diversity of rice varieties — 17 at last count — currently produced by Lundberg Family Farms growers. “Some are easier to grow than others,” Bryce explains. We like to have the farms take a mix of varieties to spread the risk around of the hard varieties and the easier varieties. Some varieties just want to jump right out of the water, and other ones you really have to watch them a lot closer to make sure they’re going to come out of the water.” In any given year, Bryce grows a mix of red and black rice, Arborio, Jasmine and Basmati and also a variety of sushi rice called Calhikari. Bryce follows his rice crops with a winter cover crop mix of oats, vetch and fava beans.

Want to read more? You can find the full version of this story in the Second Edition of Resilient Agriculture, available for purchase here.

Quinn Farm and Ranch

Quinn Farm and Ranch

Bob Quinn, Quinn Farm and Ranch, Big Sandy, Montana. Credit: Kamut International.

All the time I was growing up in the decades I can remember, we have a more or less an eleven year drought cycle. We would have a drought, one or two years in eleven. The drought that started in the late nineties, and went to ’05 or ’06 was not followed by a wet year until last year. That seven-year drought, that’s extremely unusual. And then last year was extremely wet. I mean like almost double our normal rainfall. And this winter has been quite cold again, more like what we used to have, thirty-five, forty below zero. We haven’t had a winter like this for twenty years probably. This is the kind of variability that I’m talking about.

Bob Quinn

Quinn Farm & Ranch

Northern Great Plains Region | Big Sandy, MT

Main Product: Grains

Scale: 4000 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Drop sensitive crops, shift to fall-planted crops, continue to adjust crop rotation sequence, add cover crop cocktails and livestock, explore potential for no-till.

This story is based on a 2013 interview.

The Quinn Farm and Ranch is near the town of Big Sandy in the “Golden Triangle” of north-central Montana. The climate in this shortgrass prairie region is cold — temperatures can drop as low as forty below in winter — and dry, averaging between eight and twelve inches of rainfall, which falls mostly in May and June. Bob Quinn grew up working on his family’s 2,400-acre wheat and cattle ranch established by his grandfather in 1928. After going away to college, Bob returned home with a PhD in plant biochemistry to take over management of the farm and ranch in 1978. Disenchanted with unstable commodity prices, he established Montana Flour and Grains in 1983 and begin direct marketing his wheat to bakeries. Two years later Bob sold the cattle business so that he could focus on grain production and marketing, purchased a grain mill to add wholegrain flour to his product line and began marketing grain for his neighbors. Requests from buyers for organic grains got him interested in developing organic production methods for dryland grains and in 1987, Bob harvested his first crop of certified organic grains. Just two years later, the entire Quinn Farm and Ranch was certified organic.

Today, Bob owns and manages 4,000 acres of certified organic land producing food grains in a full tillage dryland production system. He manages a diverse nine-year rotation designed to build soil quality, produce crop nutrients and manage pests. The rotation includes five years of cash crops (barley, winter and spring wheat, Indian corn seed and safflower) and four years of cover crops (alfalfa, clover, peas and buckwheat). The grains and pulses produced on the farm are marketed through Montana Flour and Grains and the Kamut brand to national and international wholesale markets.

An active researcher throughout his life, Bob has worked for many years to develop new organic farming methods and crops in collaboration with Montana State University and at his own research facility on the Quinn Farm. In the 1980s, he successful commercialized Khorasan wheat, a heirloom variety, under the Kamut trademark. Current research at the Quinn Research Farm is focused on ways to enhance the food and energy self-reliance of north-central Montana. Bob is developing a certified organic dryland cropping system that produces locally-adapted, vegetables and fruits as well as the fertilizer and fuel needed to produce and process the vegetables and fruits. Other investigations currently underway include community-based biofuel production, novel oilseeds for fuel and lubricants, improving grain crop rotations and weed management, and developing salt-tolerant vegetable cultivars.

Thinking about production challenges over the forty-plus years that he has been managing grain production at the Quinn Farm, Bob has seen some changes in weather over the last two decades. The growing season has lengthened, temperatures and precipitation are more variable, temperatures are warmer and dry periods and heat waves are more common. These changes have disrupted an eleven-year drought cycle that has long been typical for the region. Bob explains, “There are more dry periods and drought, more warm temperatures and more heat waves, and there’s less cold temperatures until this winter [2013–14]. In the last thirty-six years, we’ve had three pretty bad droughts and two pretty wet seasons, extremely wet. So we skipped one of our wet periods in the eleven-year drought cycle.”

These changes, particularly the longer periods of drought and more frequent heat waves, required Bob to replace alfalfa, the main cover crop in his rotation for many years, with more drought-resistant species. “We started out using only alfalfa as a soil-building crop, and it worked out just fantastic until we entered our first major drought,” Bob recalls. “We were affected by the drought a whole year earlier than all of our neighbors because alfalfa sucks so much water out of the ground. For one year, the drought actually wiped us out, so we gave up on alfalfa and went to peas as a green manure crop.” Peas seemed like a good choice because they will grow enough, even in a drought year, to cover the ground and protect the soil from wind erosion and loss of water through evaporation. But after the switch, weeds began to increase and grain protein content started to drop, says Bob. “So then we went to a combination of peas and alfalfa and then we also added clover and buckwheat. The clover is a two-year biannual crop, alfalfa’s a three-year crop, and peas are a one-year crop. We added buckwheat to the rotation as a plow-down green manure crop, so now we have as much diversity in cover crops as we do in our cash crops.” Bob also dropped one cash crop, lentils, from his crop rotation, because of its sensitivity to high temperatures and drought.

The performance of the new crop rotation over the last decade has reinforced Bob’s appreciation for the benefits of crop diversity. “I’m very, very solid and sold on the importance of diversity as the weather has become more erratic. Some crops will do better than others, depending on when the rains come, and when the heat comes, and when the cold comes. It is all becoming more erratic, so you never know which year it’s going to be. All those crops will react a little differently, some will do better, some will do worse, but if you have a big diversity, then you can save a lot of your income and your harvest overall.”

Although Bob is satisfied with the performance of the mix of his crop rotation, he continues working to fine-tune the order the crops appear in the rotation to enhance yields and soil quality. “We’ve designed the crop rotation to have all types of different crops feeding and taking from the soil over the course of nine years,” he explains. “Now we’re working more on the order, trying to work out which crop best follows another crop. We’re also starting to look at some companion cropping and the use of no-till on the farm. All of this ties into soil health. We believe if you have good soil health, then you’ll have good plant health, and if you have good plant health, you’re going to have good people health.”

Thinking about the future, Bob is concerned about how more variable precipitation might affect crop production on the farm. “I’m a little bit worried about the water,” he says. “The long-term climate models show us getting warmer and wetter, but I don’t see the wetter happening yet for our region. Water is always a challenge because we’re in a semi-arid region. That means we’re always short. Normally that’s the limiting factor in crop production here, so we’re always looking for ways to conserve water, to catch more water that falls in the land.”

Bob appreciates the increased infiltration and water holding capacity achieved with his soil-building program, but is actively looking for ways to capture and store more rainfall, particularly during summer thunderstorms. He is also looking for different ways to conserve water because he believes that conflicts over water supplies are likely to grow in coming years. “I think that water is going to be the next big battleground. It’ll make the fuel crisis look like Disneyland. If we can figure out how to grow at least some basic food crops, grains, vegetables and fruits, without a lot of water, that will be a huge benefit, because we may be forced into that at some point.”

Bob also sees many potential opportunities in changing climate conditions. The Quinn Farm moved from zone 3 to zone 4 in the new USDA growing zone map released in 2012, opening up some new fruit-growing possibilities. Bob explains, “I’m pretty interested in seeing what plants can survive on the prairie and what we can do with fruit juices and that sort of thing. We are more than a thousand miles from the nearest orange tree, so why are we drinking orange juice every morning? That’s what I ask my friends.”
Bob has been experimenting with a new fruit juice drink that makes use of sour cherries, a fruit that can be grown locally. Sour cherry juice has as the vitamin C and antioxidants of orange juice, but is too sour to drink alone. “A mix of sweet apple cider and sour cherry juice makes an amazingly robust and zesty breakfast drink,” says Bob. “People don’t think about growing cherries out on the prairie, but we get a huge production from our hardy sour cherry trees. Canadian researchers have shown that if you protect fruit trees with some kind of a shelterbelt, some kind of protection against direct winds, which are pretty fierce on the prairie, you can have success with them. That’s what we’ve done and we are showing that to be true.”

Years of active research and development work has left Bob a little frustrated at the slow erosion of support for government technical assistance programs like the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Cooperative Extension Service. “My biggest complaint is that they do not have time to help with inventive projects. There are no provisions to help people that want to try something completely different or in a different way. They’re way overloaded with these programs that someone else has designed. They don’t have any time for ingenuity and something different, and I think that’s too bad. They didn’t use to be that way. They used to be a resource for any kind of soil conservation project that you might want to dream up.”

“I wish that we could send that message to Washington somehow,” Bob goes on, “that they don’t have all the answers, and by pretending that they do, they really stifle imagination and response to some of these future challenges. Especially now, when things are obviously changing, we need to really be thinking of as many different solutions as possible, not trying to apply a solution that worked in the last decade. Many of those old solutions were fine, but they might not work in the future nearly as well as something that some people are only just starting to think about now, or something that hasn’t even been thought of yet.”

Bob has long been recognized for his innovative leadership in sustainable agriculture and organic farming research and business development. He is a recipient of AERO’s Sustainable Agriculture Award (1988), was honored for a lifetime of service by the Montana Organic Association (2007) and received the National Organic Leadership Award from the Organic Trade Association in 2010. In 2011, Bob was named a Good Food Hero in recognition of his work with ancient grains, organic production and improving food quality and in 2013, the Rodale Research Institute recognized him with a national Organic Pioneer Award. Quinn Farm and Ranch is one of sixty American farms and ranches selected for the USDA-SARE publication “The New American Farmer: Profiles of Agricultural Innovation.”

 

Brown’s Ranch

Brown’s Ranch

Gabe Brown, Brown’s Ranch, Bismarck, North Dakota. Credit: Brian Devore.

There is so much variability now that you really can’t plan on anything. It seems that every year is an extreme. Really, I can’t honestly say there is anything that we really plan on as far as the weather anymore. There is definitely more variability and precipitation from year and more variability in temperature.

Gabe Brown

Brown’s Ranch

Northern Great Plains Region | Bismarck, ND

Main Product: Grain

Scale: 5000 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Holistic management, shift to diversified rotations w/livestock integration, grassland restoration w/intensive grazing, livestock adaptation to local conditions, shift to direct markets.

This story is based on a 2014 interview.

Gabe Brown has been producing cattle, feed and food grains near Bismarck, North Dakota, for more than thirty years. When he began farming on the ranch, natural resource quality was poor. The cropland had been intensively tilled for many years, soils were very low in organic matter, and light rains of as little as a half inch an hour caused surface runoff and soil erosion. Weeds, insects, low soil moisture and poor fertility all seemed to be holding down crop yields and the ranch’s extensive native grasslands were in poor health too.

After he and his wife Shelly purchased the ranch from her parents in 1991, Gabe knew that he wanted to make some changes. He began transitioning the ranch to no-till, to diversify crop rotations and to management-intensive grazing in order to build soil quality. In 1993, Gabe converted all of his cropland to no-till and the following year he added peas, a legume crop, to the spring wheat, oats and barley that had been grown for many years on the ranch. Encouraged by the improvements he saw in soil quality in those first two years, Gabe planned to continue making changes to build soil quality and biodiversity on the ranch, but extreme weather caused near total crop losses at Brown Ranch for the next four years in a row.

“Back in the mid ’90s,” Gabe recalls, “I went through three years of hail and one year of drought. After you lose your crops four years in a row, the banker is not going to loan you money.” Short on operating funds, he didn’t have much of a choice except to continue working to improve resource quality on the ranch. He didn’t have the money to purchase fertilizers or pesticides for the croplands. “Since that time I’ve really focused on the soil resource and on improving the water cycle, energy cycle and nutrient cycle using holistic management practices,” Gabe explains. “It has been a journey, one long learning process.”

Today, the Brown Ranch includes about 2,000 acres of native rangeland that has never been tilled, 1,000 acres of perennial introduced forages and 2,000 acres of no-till, dryland cropland producing corn, peas (grain and forage types), spring wheat, oats, barley, sunflowers, vetch, triticale, rye and alfalfa, plus a great diversity of cover crops. Throughout the year, as many as seventy different species are planted in various fields. The grains, sunflower seeds, peas and alfalfa are sold for cash while cattle, poultry and sheep are rotationally grazed through the grasslands, cover crops and forages. No insecticides or fungicides have been used on the ranch for over a decade, herbicide use has been cut by over 75 percent and no synthetic fertilizer has been used since 2008. Corn yields average 20 percent higher than the county average.

Water management is no longer a big issue at Brown Ranch, where Gabe has seen first-hand the benefits of soil quality for reducing weather-related risks to production. “After no-till for twenty-plus years, very diverse crop rotations, cover crops, plus livestock integration, we’ve improved the health of our soil to the point that the infiltration rate, the water-holding capacity and the nutrient cycle are totally different now. Our average annual precipitation is about sixteen inches. Before, when we were only infiltrating a half of an inch per hour, we got very little of that water into the soil profile. We were always fighting a lack of moisture, whereas now, virtually every raindrop that falls we’re able to hold.” Over the twenty years that Gabe, his wife Shelly and their son Paul have worked to transition the ranch to a more sustainable production system, soil organic matter levels in the croplands have more than tripled and the soil infiltration rate has increased from one half inch to eight inches per hour.

Gabe really noticed weather extremes getting more frequent starting somewhere around 2006 or 2007. Flooding in parts of North Dakota seems to have become the norm rather than a rare event and more variable weather has complicated fieldwork and made crop production more difficult. “It used to be we knew we had a window of time when it’s usually dry and we can harvest some forages or plant a crop,” says Gabe. “We could plan for harvest during that dry period and plant crops according to a plan. That’s no longer the case.”

Gabe says the most effective climate-risk management tool he has is the capacity of the ranch’s healthy soils to buffer more variable rainfall and temperatures. “If you can improve your soil resource and make these soils more resilient,” says Gabe, “you’ll be able to weather these extremes in moisture and temperature much more easily. I can easily go through a two-year drought and it does not affect our operation to any great extent because the soil is so much more resilient. Now you’re still going to have some swings in yields with annual precipitation, but it does not affect crop yields to the extent that it used to. If you have a healthy resilient soil resource and a functioning water cycle then your crops and livestock are not nearly as susceptible to these extremes.”

Gabe appreciates the flexibility his diverse crop rotation allows him in variable weather conditions. Because he plants throughout the year, he can make adjustments to fine-tune the crop rotation plan to current weather conditions. “That’s the beauty of the diverse system of ours,” Gabe explains. “At times, we want to plant the cover crop and then if the weather conditions change, maybe it’s dry, we’ll change the mix of that species a bit for more crop types that can handle drier conditions or vice versa. We have a really big toolbox to choose from.” This ability to switch out crops gives Gabe more ability to adapt his crop rotation to weather variability and extremes than other producers growing just a few crops, a point that has not been lost on the conventional producers that visit the Brown Ranch to see for themselves how Gabe’s farming system works. Gabe explains, “I tell people this when I speak in the Corn Belt. Those guys plant either corn or soybeans — that’s all they plant. If corn and beans don’t work out for those guys, then they’re going to have a poor year, whereas we have the ability to switch in or out of so many different crops. It just makes management so much easier.”

Gabe has also made changes to his livestock production to better fit it to the ranch’s natural environment and to improve natural resources on the farm. He uses management-intensive grazing techniques and grazes his cattle on native prairie, improved pastures, and annual cover crops. Gabe explains, “The way we manage our livestock operations, there are very few weather-related events that will affect our animals. We used to calve in February and March, so shelter, animal health and feeding during the cold were all a problem. Now, we calve in late May and June out on grass and that is a healthy environment for them. Due to our selection process the cattle are now more adapted our environment. We raise cattle in a much more natural way now. The environmental extremes do not affect our livestock as much anymore.”

For more than a decade, Gabe has been a popular speaker at farming conferences throughout the country. He also hosts thousands of visitors to the ranch each year and is proud to say that he has hosted visitors from all fifty states and sixteen foreign countries over the years. As weather variability and extremes have increased, Gabe has noticed a groundswell of interest in his methods from farmers and ranchers with a more conventional mindset. “The weather is always brought up at every meeting, because they are seeing more extremes and more variability and they are asking, ‘How do I buffer that?’ Every place I go these days I am speaking to full rooms of people because they are realizing that the conventional agriculture model just isn’t working. They’ve been through a period here the last several years of very good commodity prices, but it’s rapidly changing and they realize they can’t keep going on the way they are.”

Gabe is also heartened by new connections being made between soil health and human well-being. “People are starting to see how the conventional production model is contributing to the human health crisis in this country. I think that a lot of this relates to the soil and how we’ve degraded it. This has led to the destruction of the water cycle, and that’s severely affecting society. People are seeing they have to change. That’s why soil health and regenerating our resources is so important.”

Gabe expressed concern about the barriers created by crop insurance in grain production. “The current program is antagonistic to healthy soils,” says Gabe. “Farmers are now making planting decisions based on crop insurance guarantees. This leads to lower diversity which negatively affects soils and it is terrible for the consumer. Ideally, I would like to see all federal subsidies for crop insurance eliminated. If this were done producers would quickly learn that the success of their operation depends on a healthy soil ecosystem. If we truly want to regenerate our soils, crop insurance subsidies should be eliminated.” Gabe believes that programs to reward good soil management would be an effective way to encourage changes in farm management practices, but he acknowledges that such programs could create a whole lot of bureaucracy too.

Asked about the future, Gabe is confident that the resilience he has cultivated on his ranch will serve him well as climate change intensifies. He is optimistic, too, about the increased interest in his production system. “No matter what the reason,” says Gabe, “weather, economics, or a little of both, there is growing interest among conventionally-minded grain producers in how soil health can increase production system resilience.”

Gabe Brown is nationally recognized for his innovative work in soil quality and integrated production systems. He is a popular speaker at farming conferences throughout the country and regularly hosts tours and workshops at the Brown Ranch. He has actively participated for many years in soil quality research on his ranch in collaboration with university and federal scientists. Brown’s Ranch won the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s Environmental Stewardship Award in 2006 and Gabe was named the USA Zero-Till Farmer of the Year in 2007. He is the recipient of the 2008 Honor Award from the Soil and Water Conservation Society. In 2012, Gabe was honored with the Food Producer’s Growing Green Award by the Natural Resources Defense Council. Gabe was a featured speaker at the 2014 National Cover Crop and Soil Health Conference, a landmark event that brought together three hundred agricultural leaders and innovators to explore how to enhance the sustainability of American agriculture through improved soil health.

 

Fuller Farms

Fuller Farms

Gail Fuller, Fuller Farms, Emporia, Kansas. Credit: Gail Fuller.

While the 80’s were challenging weather-wise they don’t hold a candle to what we’ve had here in the last 13 or 14 years. The extremes that we are going through right now are really extreme. Obviously time erases all those memories, but I don’t remember the wild swings like we’ve seeing today, and definitely the 90’s were not like this.

Gail Fuller

Fuller Farms

Southern Great Plains Region | Emporia, KS

Main Product: Grains

Scale: 3200 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Shift to regenerative grazing multispecies pastured livestock production, add on-farm processing, direct marketing, agrotourism, solar farm, carbon farming.

This story is based on a 2013 interview.  You can read more about the evolution of Fuller Farms in the Second Edition of Resilient Agriculture.

Fuller is the third generation to own Fuller Farms, located in east central Kansas near Emporia. Gail learned about farming from his grandfathers, who were both farmers, and by working side by side with his father on their 700-acre family farm. In the late 1980s, Gail took over the grain production side of Fuller Farms. Like many producers in those times, he adopted no-till to try and reduce serious soil erosion problems and improve profitability by reducing the fuel needed for fieldwork. By the mid-1990s, the livestock had been dropped from the farm system and Gail had expanded corn and soybean production to more than 2,000 acres by leasing neighboring land.

Thinking back on the transition to no-till, Gail recalls following best management practices of the time which involved simplifying the farming system quite a bit. “Basically corn and soybeans were the only two crops we grew. When we went to no-till, we kicked wheat and milo out of our rotation. We had a four-way rotation — corn, soybeans, wheat and milo — during the ’80s and we raised cattle, but that all got kicked out with the big rush to no-till in the ’90s. When no-till first really got popular, cows and no-till weren’t allowed. It was thought at the time that cattle were too destructive to soils and the damage they caused by trampling farm ground couldn’t be fixed without tillage, so the cows got kicked off.”

Gail says that soil erosion did not seem to get much better with the switch to no-till, perhaps because the corn–soy rotation didn’t leave much crop residue. “It was all corn and soybeans,” Gail explains, “and most of the corn was being chopped for silage at the time.” When this is done the entire corn plant — grain and stalk — is harvested, so there is very little plant matter left in the field. “There was zero carbon in the system,” Gail recalls. “I don’t have any documentation, but our erosion definitely did not get better just because we switched to no-till, because we just weren’t leaving anything for the soil. And the shift to no-till created some issues with soil fertility and also increased insect and disease problems.” By the late 1990s, Gail added some cover crops into the rotation and brought cattle back to the farm in an effort to build soil quality and reduce soil erosion. Although early attempts to manage cover crops within the no-till system were challenging, diverse crop rotations integrated with cattle, have been a central feature of Fuller Farms since 2003.

Today, Gail manages a large variety of cash crops, cover crops, cattle, sheep and poultry in a highly diversified and integrated dryland production system with the goal of keeping a living root in the ground at all times. A typical cash crop mix in a given year might include winter canola, winter barley, winter triticale, winter wheat, spring wheat, corn, grain, sorghum, soybeans, sunflowers, red clover, safflower, oats and peas. Cover crops increase diversity on the farm even more, by adding thirty to forty additional species. The 75-head beef cow herd is intensively grazed on continuous cover crops and beef cattle are finished on the farm. Gail believes that the cattle are key to his crop management and thinks as the crops and livestock on the farm as one integrated whole.

Since Gail diversified the farming system, fertility and pest challenges created by the shift to no-till are, as Gail puts it, “in the rearview mirror.” Occasional crop nutrient or pest problems are easily managed these days in the well-established and highly diverse farming system. What is becoming increasingly challenging, according the Gail, is the weather. He started noticing greater extremes in temperatures and precipitation around 2000, as best as he can recall. He remembers the ’90s as just a little more settled and predictable, as well as a little wetter than normal. “1993 and ’95 were extremely wet years,” he says and laughs. “Maybe on a grand scale we were starting to see these wild swings in the ’80s and ’90s. They’ve just become much more defined and much more sudden. Instead of having prolonged periods of below or above average, we’re just going over cliffs all the time.”

Flooding, dry periods and drought have all become more frequent and intense in the last ten to fifteen years, according to Gail. “For instance, we had one of our biggest floods in recorded history in November of ’98 and then we’ve been dry since, with the exception of ’08 and ’09, which I think were the two wettest years in history in our area. Then we had close to the two driest years ever in ’11 and ’12. This last go-round of drought has just been unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Starting in June of 2010, we have been in a pattern of six to eight months with no precipitation and then we get it all at once. Our last big round of precipitation was in August of last year [2013], when we had 18 inches of rain in 16 days. August is normally our driest month.” More extremes in temperatures have also interfered with crop production at Fuller Farms in the last few years. “As an example, August of 2013 was one of the coldest on record and it was followed by the hottest September on record. The shifts right now are just really becoming challenging.”

While these changes in precipitation have increased the complexity of managing crop and livestock production at Fuller Farms, warmer spring and summer temperatures, particularly warmer nights, have definitely reduced crop yields, according to Gail. “The winter grains like cooler nights. They mature during late May and June and normally we’re already getting pretty warm by then. We also get a lot of humidity, so it’s pretty hard to cool off at night.” In 2012, temperatures were so much warmer all through the spring and summer that everything was about thirty days early. The winter grains were stressed during the grain filling period by the hot, summer-like conditions in spring, while corn and soybeans were stressed throughout the summer by excessive heat. Gail recalls, “It was just over 100 degrees every day, day after day that summer. If we could have cooled off at night and let those plants relax a little bit we probably would have had a better chance. It’s really the nighttime temperatures that got us more than anything. Obviously 110 degrees in the day is not anything to like, but when they can’t cool off at night it makes it so much tougher the next day.”

Other farmers in the region have noticed the more variable weather, but they have not been affected because a loophole in crop insurance allows them to “double dip”, according to Gail. “In 2012, which was the hottest, driest year since 1936, producers that had corn in their rotation had one of their best financial years ever.”

Although Gail takes advantage of crop insurance too, he views crop diversity as his best insurance against crop failure. He has been an innovator of extremely diverse cover crop polycultures, called cover crop cocktails, mixes of many different species that are tolerant to many environmental conditions. “For us the multi-species mixes of cover crops have been the slam dunk,” Gail explains, “just so obviously building resilience into your system.

When you’re putting ten or twelve things in the mix — or fifteen or twenty things in the mix is even better — something’s going to survive, whatever you throw at it. That keeps the system alive. It keeps the microbial community fat, the earthworms fat. It just keeps the whole system operating much healthier and much more resilient than just a monoculture crop out there.”

The cover crop cocktails also give Gail a lot of flexibility in crop planning. He typically plants eleven months out of the year, and having such a diverse selection of species to choose from allows him to design cover crop mixes to meet multiple goals and adjust the species to take advantage of seasonal weather conditions. “The first thing we do is look at the resource concern we have in a particular field before we design the mix for it,” Gail explains. “Are you going to graze it? What time of the year are you planting it? Our knowledge of what these cover crops can do is extremely limited, but we’re getting a better grasp with what we’ve seen here in the last four or five years with the extreme dry.”

Gail goes on to explain the design process. “Then, if we think this is the weather pattern we’re going to have, then we know that some cover crop species are going to handle it better than others and so we’ll make them the dominant species in the mix. And that’s another thing about how a mix increases resilience. When you guess wrong, there’s still going to be something there that will grow. The more diversity we put in that mix, the more it protects us.” Gail feels he has just started to scratch the surface of the possibilities of cover crop mixes. Although he started with two-crop or “two-way” mixes in the late ’90s, fifteen- to twenty-way mixes are the norm on the farm now. Gail imagines that the diversity of species in cover crop mixes will only continue to grow as seed suppliers offer more diversity in cover crop seeds; he thinks forty-way mixes are a real possibility in the near future.

Gail is also looking at bringing more diversity to crop production with the addition of cover crop seed and winter barley to the Fuller Farms cash crop rotation. He is experimenting with producing triticale barley, cowpeas, mung beans, buckwheat seeds. “We’re going to try some different things for cover crop seed companies that bring us more diversity, that make us more resilient,” Gail explains. “We don’t have all of our eggs in one basket. We spread our harvest period out, so we’ve reduced our risk and also we get premiums for those products, so it’s kind of a win-win.” Gail is also experimenting this year with no-till organic production in several fields to see if he can add additional value to his products and diversify into yet another premium market.

But resilience at Fuller Farms is not based just on crop diversity. Gail views the livestock as integral to the system as a whole. Until 2013, Gail’s cattle grazed only annual cover crops, so choosing covers that are good forages is an important consideration. And the livestock provide extra crop insurance, because they can consume cash crops when weather conditions reduce quality or yield. “The livestock have now become part of the crop rotation,” Gail explains. “I’ve got a twelve-month grazing plan. You have to have a plan if you’re going to be grazing cropland. You need to have something in mind about where the cows are going to go in the worst-case scenario. In the future, the cows will be my crop insurance. That’s how I plan to get income off of failed crops. I can graze them and then we will have added value to the crops — and to the cattle. We’ve also recently brought sheep into the operation, because they’re more drought tolerant than cattle, so we’re even diversifying there as well.”

The cattle also improve the adaptive capacity of a farm or ranch by providing a value-added product and bringing all the soil quality benefits associated with management-intensive grazing, such as the stimulation of soil microorganisms and the distribution of manure back to the soil. And because Gail is grazing short-season forages throughout the year, flexible scheduling of cattle finishing allows him to capture seasonally high market prices. Gail explains, “We have value added because we are grass-finishing, but because we’re grazing cover crops, I think we can expand our marketability too. In the grass-finished business, most guys are marketing in the summer. We’ve expanded our grazing thirty days on both ends at least, maybe sixty days in the fall, so we can finish cattle later in the year.”

But there is a downside to all this diversity. In 2012, Gail landed in the center of a national crop insurance controversy. Weather conditions made it impossible for him to kill a cover crop within the time required by insurance guidelines and his crop insurance was cancelled because his use of cover crop cocktails was interpreted as intercropping — a prohibited practice. In an ironic twist, Gail had previously been awarded a Conservation Innovation grant by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) for the same fields deemed out of compliance by the crop insurance company. After his request for a review of his case was denied, Gail took his concerns up the chain of command until he was invited to Washington, DC, to discuss the situation with USDA agency directors and his congressional representatives. Gail remembers telling the group, “We’ve got three government agencies controlling production agriculture and none of them are on the same page, and that needs to stop. You need to pick a direction. We can’t be getting paid here for one practice, then walk across the aisle and get denied benefits for doing the same thing.” USDA agency representatives agreed and created an interagency task force soon after their meeting with Gail to try and harmonize cover crop policies. In April 2014, the Task Force released a new cover crop policy to be used by all three agencies. Only time will tell if the new policy will encourage the use of cover crop cocktails by commodity grain producers.

Another key barrier to managing crop diversity at Fuller Farms is the poor availability of a diverse range cover crops and cash crops. Gail explains, “The availability of appropriate crop varieties has been a big one for us. We are switching to non-GMO varieties and we’ve gone from a two-crop rotation to about twelve different crops in a five-year rotation. Just finding out what works in this area is a challenge. We’re growing things like winter barley and other unusual crops for our area. So we’re bringing crops from outside our region and the varieties that are available don’t always line up really well.”

Although the advice and support of federal and state technical personnel and programs would be welcomed, Gail says they have not done the kind of research that he needs to improve his farming system. “We’ve for the most part walked away from our state university because their research is so far behind. It would be nice if we had it, if they had done the research we needed a decade ago and had this available today, that would’ve been phenomenal. It would’ve been extremely helpful, because I could have avoided all the failure that I’ve had here in my farm in the last ten years.” Gail views the agricultural universities and many federal agricultural support programs, including crop insurance, as more of a hindrance than a help to enhancing the sustainability of U.S. agriculture.

Thinking about the future, Gail says that the improvement he has seen on his farm and in his bottom line gives him a lot of confidence that he will enjoy continued success. And he is already planning ahead for more intense weather variability and extremes. For the longer term, he is exploring what he calls “pasture cropping,” the no-till planting of an annual cash grain crop into a perennial pasture that has been knocked back by grazing or mowing.

Gail sees a lot of potential for enhancing natural resource quality with pasture cropping, particularly as a long-term solution for sequestering carbon, building soil quality, enhancing the water cycle and increasing energy flow. For now, he sees a lot of adaptive potential in his farming system because he can make changes in the crop rotation to fit seasonal weather conditions. If drought conditions intensify in his region as projected, Gail thinks there will be a high demand for forages to feed cattle, because corn is not productive in hot, dry conditions. “I would probably pull out things like corn if droughts increase,” says Gail, “and put in more forage type crops that do well in those conditions. Hay and forages will become a premium, so I think we can probably do a lot of custom grazing and find ways to turn adversity into dollars.”

Gail’s innovative design and management have earned him both regional and national recognition. He is a regular speaker at agricultural conferences and hosts workshops and visitors at his farm. He is featured in the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Profiles in Soil Health, a series that showcases how some of the nation’s leading farmers are managing soil health to make their farms more profitable, productive and sustainable. In 2013, Gail was one of eight Kansas farmers recognized with a Climate and Energy Award by the Climate and Energy Project, a nonprofit working to promote climate change mitigation in America’s Heartland. He was also nationally recognized as the recipient of the 2013 Conservation Legacy Award from the American Soybean Association.