Field trip @ Batalden's farm
Author: Alex Liebman
I am writing this over a cup of coffee, having a slow morning waking up as I got back late last night after a legume cover cropping field day at Phil Batalden's farm 6 miles south of Lamberton, MN. Amidst wind turbines and endless fields of prime agricultural land, the few paved roads are often full of tractor-trailers hauling corn for ethanol production, soybean for feed, or miscellaneous materials. The sky is endless in all directions; weather fronts and cloud formations birth, grow, and mature in a single spectacle.
The day was rainy, windy, and about 35 degrees F, yet the field day was a success. More than 25 people came, huddled inside canvas jackets or rain coats, many replete with a seed company logo. As people poured out of Buick Park Avenues and Ford F-350 trucks, sloshing through the drainage ditch to see the cover crop demonstration, Phil explained cover crop choices, the previous crop, and his plans for the following year. Phil and his son Ryan transitioned their conventional corn-soy farm to an organic grain and cover crop seed production farm about 15 years ago. This was, according to Phil, a calculated decision - he didn't think that he could mechanize rapidly enough to maintain pace with the evolving machinery and management trajectories in conventional farming. By converting to organic, he could maintain his farm size and current machinery while also improving the soil on his land. Now, Phil and Ryan farm a combined 750 acres, far less than the average farm size in southwest Minnesota. Various side projects and businesses have sprung from this transition - for example, Phil's daughter spent several years making camelina oil from farm-produced crops and marketing the oil to Twin Cities retailers. While Phil is much too humble to boast, as he describes the long-term demographic outmigration in southwest Minnesota, it is clear he sees his farm's diversification as a small step towards more a more vibrant rural landscape. Ryan, his son, is more explicit - as an active member of the Land Stewardship Project, he has traveled to the U.S. Capitol to demand changes to federal crop insurance and direct payments plans that lock-in highly capitalized corn-soy production, limiting the ability of new farmers to acquire sufficient land to begin farm operations.
The cover crops we planted in the fall were doing well, albeit a bit battered by the cold rain. As we dug into the muddy ground, we found roots covered by nodules. Cutting them open, they were bright red, a sign that leghemoglobin was binding oxygen, keeping it from the nitrogenase enzyme, allowing the rhizobia bacteria in the nodule to respire - in short - signs of active biological nitrogen fixation! Many of the questions the farmers asked stretched the limits of knowledge of Julie, Sharon, and I - what will control vetch better – 2,4-D or glyphosate? If most of the plant material has the nitrogen I want in my soil, how do no-till or burn-down practices affect the nitrogen credit?
Our lab largely focuses on the biological and biogeochemical aspects of carbon and nitrogen cycling in agroecosystems, with comparatively less knowledge regarding the technicalities of agronomic production. This allows us to ask questions regarding decomposition, how various types of management impact nitrogen availability, or the potential for different cover cropping treatments to contribute to soil organic matter pools. However, we don't necessarily know the mode-of-action of various herbicides, the exact days to maturity of corn varieties, or how cover cropping will impact crop insurance payments.
My own opinion is that agronomy desperately needs to incorporate ecological perspectives into research, outreach, and practice. The perspectives that agroecology bring to bear on historically narrow agronomic research foci based on increased crop productivity are increasingly necessary in a world facing climate, economic, and political crises of global proportions. Yet, especially after the field day, I am struck by the need for our lab to improve our agricultural production knowledge in speaking with farmers about these systems. How can we expect and promote adoption of cover cropping without intimate knowledge of farmer production pressures, struggles, perception of risk, and the surrounding political economy? Broadly, I think there is a need to more explicitly define and interpret the agroecosystem at hand – re-shifting the object of analysis from, say "plant-soil agroecology" to include land-use ecologies, landscape ecologies, and farmer ecologies in our work. In these contexts, then, cropping rotations, cover crop termination techniques, spatial distributions of plant-soil processes, and farmers' experiences would inform the research process and systems development alongside analyses of soil health and nitrogen cycling.
A shorter way of saying this might be: As a graduate student focused on coursework, my own myopic PhD research proposal, the urban bike ride to school, and intellectual debates within the fields of ecology and agronomy, it is exciting, inspiring, and humbling to collaborate with Phil and other farmers to better understand cover cropping systems, both in their biological idiosyncrasies and their manifestation on the landscape.
After a long bout in the rain, we headed to Phil's barn to eat cookies, drink coffee, and discuss cover cropping experiences and ideas. An NRCS agent spoke about "flying-on" cover crops (helicopter use results in poor establishment, planes work better) and people spoke about how they were incorporating (or wanted to incorporate) cover crops into their crop rotations. After almost two hours of discussion (and a maple syrup prize giveaway from Phil's trees), we hopped in the truck, now caked in dirt, to head back to the Cities. I am looking forward to more field days in the future, to keep learning from people like Phil and Ryan, to continue to complicate reductionist or myopic research interests, and to keep working towards becoming a more thoughtful, engaged scientist.