Rethinking dirt

With the idea that healthy soil is much more than dirt, an Ozaukee County official and farm organization are changing the way a group slow to change is doing business

OZAUKEE COUNTY’S director of land and water management, Andy Holschbach, scooped up a shovel of healthy soil at a demonstration farm operated by the Clean Farm Families organization. Photo by Sam Arendt
By 
KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Ozaukee Press staff

Healthy soil is so much more than dirt, Andy Holschbach said. It’s the key to everything from cleaner water to healthier food to sustainable and more profitable farming. 

Holschbach, director of Ozaukee County’s Land and Water Management Department, isn’t alone in his thinking. And with the Clean Farm Families organization, he’s spreading the word and changing the way farmers in the county are doing business.

It’s working. Holschbach said more and more farmers are incorporating healthy soil practices in their operations — including no-till operations and always having cover crops  — although he concedes they have a way to go.

“It takes time,” he said. “Farmers aren’t always willing to change.”

But farmers listen to one another, so in 2016 the Ozaukee County Clean Farm Families group was started to test the new philosophy of no-till, cover crop farming and recruit others to join in the effort.

“They’re the leaders,” Holschbach said. “They’re willing to take on these practices and see if they work and talk to others about them. With farming, I think you have to demonstrate it works, and farmers need to want to make it work.”

To help, the county, its Clean Farm Families group and partner organizations such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture have come up with programs to aid farmers in the transition.

They have bought equipment that area farmers can rent from the county to interseed cover crops among rows of farm crops, created scholarships to such events as the National No-Tillage Conference, brought in nationally recognized speakers and offered incentives for farmers to plant cover crops and adopt no-till and low-disturbance practices.

And in the process, Ozaukee County has become known as a leader in the healthy soils movement.

Holschbach credits much of that work to the Clean Farm Families organization, saying the group began with a group of dedicated farmers who have spread the word among their peers.

“It’s all about farmer-led conservation and soil health,” Holschbach said. “It’s really neat to see these guys taking ownership.”

But Town of Belgium farmer Matt Winker said the credit belongs to Holschbach.

“Andy’s been the driving force behind this program,” Winker said. “He really does deserve praise. If it wasn’t for Andy, this program never would have gotten off the ground.”

Since adopting the new practices eight years ago, Winker said, he’s seen a huge difference in his farm.

“Our soil has changed dramatically,” he said, and the profit per acres has gone up substantially in large part because the amount of fuel used is far less than it used to be — as much as 5,000 gallons a year less.

Holschbach cited a study by the Soil Health Institute that showed a soil health management system increased net income for farmers by $51.60 an acre for corn and $44.89 per acre for soybeans.

Winker said it’s sometimes difficult for farmers who grew up following one set of practices to change.

“You have to take all that knowledge and throw it away,” he said. “The biggest thing for them to overcome is fear — you’ve done something for 30, 40 years and you know what works. Then you try this and you’re flying by the seat of your pants.”

The new way of farming, he said, is a “more finicky way. There’s a lot of learning — it’s figuring out how to minimize tilling, to get cover crops going year-round. It’s halting erosion.”

A typical farm field that’s tilled will allow 1/4 inch of rain to infiltrate the soil in an hour, Winker said, while his field will absorb two inches an hour. 
Holschbach said that for him the new philosophy of farming boils down to one realization — that the soil is alive.

“I think when people know something is alive they treat it differently,” he said. “The biggest thing is to realize the soil is alive. It needs air and a good environment just like we do. We need to take care of it.”

Plants, he noted, release carbohydrates into the soil during photosynthesis, and these support the microorganisms in the dirt.

One teaspoon of healthy soil, he said, has more micro-organisms than there are people on the earth.

Through the years the soil has been damaged by conventional farming practices, Holschbach said. 

For example, tilling, he said, destroys the soil structure, destroys the microbiome and promotes erosion. It causes the earth to have a thick crust that doesn’t allow water or oxygen to penetrate and results in erosion.

“I get out in a lot of fields and I see a lot of stressed soils,” Holschbach said. “They’re hard. The rain doesn’t sink in. It just sits on top.”

Healthy soil not only allows the water to soak in, it also filters it into the groundwater.

The new philosophy calls for no-till practices that support soil structure and allow water to be absorbed. It calls for the soil to be planted year-round with cover crops to maintain the health of the soil, and for a diversity of plants to be planted. And it calls for farmers to disturb the soil as little as possible.

Healthy soil, Holschbach noted, also produces more nutrient rich food for the people and animals that eat it.

It’s not just farmers who are beginning to embrace the new philosophy. The Clean Farm Families put on a demonstration for the Ozaukee County Board this fall, bringing a mobile unit to show the difference no-till, cover-cropped land can make in filtering water.

After the demonstration, Holschbach said, county supervisors gave him the go-ahead to purchase a tractor to pull an interseeder the county previously bought. The interseeder plants shade-tolerant plants between rows of corn so when the corn is harvested, a mature cover crop is already in place.

The county charges farmers $14 an acre for the tractor, interseeder and a driver, Holschbach said. The farmer has to provide the fuel and seed.

It’s an effort to “get people to look at this and think about doing this,” he said. “After all, equipment is expensive.”

The new farming philosophy may also have a greater impact on the world. Holschbach noted that plants store carbon dioxide in the soil and when it is tilled, the carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere, exacerbating global warming.

“If we got all the farms on board, countywide, statewide, nationwide, we would change global warming faster than electric cars,” Winker said. “We as farmers can really make a difference.”

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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