The Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society promotes an agriculture that
builds healthy land, people, communities and quality of life, for present and
This newsletter is published quarterly. We welcome letters, articles, poetry
and other contributions.
NSAS is not just for farmers. Our diverse membership includes ranchers,
market gardeners and concerned consumers from both rural and urban
communities. We welcome anyone who is concerned about family farming,
environmental quality, and ensuring a safe, healthy and adequate food supply
for the future.
NSAS membership costs $25 per year. Membership benefits include this
newsletter and interim news updates, reduced admission to our Annual Meeting
and Western Nebraska Conference, videotape rental priveleges, and notices of
farm tours, workshops and project opportunities. Your contribution to NSAS
enables us to continue and expand our membership support services and
Please send correspondence to: NSAS, PO Box 736, Hartington, NE 68739;
IN THIS ISSUE:
Creating Sustainable Farming Systems
Rotations in Vegetable Production
UNL Interns Manage Integrated Farms
Rotations in Quebec
Western Nebraska Farmers Describe Rotations
Nebraska IMPACT Project News
Farmers May Be at Risk for Certain Cancers
CREATING SUSTAINABLE FARMING SYSTEMS
Rotations Build Soil, Control Pests, and Keep Farming Interesting
Cris Carusi and Martin Kleinschmit
Tom Larson grins as he shows off the Dragonfly, a sleek two passenger plane
which he built over the course of several winters. Aviation is his hobby. His
knack for craftsmanship shows as he explains how he built his plane from
foam, fiberglass, and a Subaru engine. The Dragonfly embodies Tom's
conviction that there is more to life than farming.
Tom approaches farming with a similar attitude of craftsmanship. He rotates
soybeans, corn, oats with turnips and cattle through his ridge-till
strip-cropping system. He adapted most of his own ridge-till equipment from
used machinery. His irrigated 160 acre St. Edward farm, which includes 60
acres of row crops and 90 acres of pasture and hay ground, has been in his
family for 61 years.
His grandfather and father raised monoculture corn on the farm until the
early 1970s. At that time, a neighbor was experimenting with a corn-soybean
rotation, and achieving good results. Tom liked what the beans did for the
soil, and he saw income potential in the soybean crop. He and his dad decided
to give rotations a try. The corn-bean rotation provided the Larsons with
good returns and soil benefits. They eventually added oats to the system, to
Tom now rotates his crops in 152-inch wide strips (4x38"). Soybeans, the
first crop in this rotation, provide a number of benefits to the system,
including pest control, nitrogen for the following year's corn crop, and
Rotations prevent insect pest populations from exploding. "Insects are
creatures of opportunity," Tom explains. "They will build up in large
populations where the environment is right for them. If you keep changing
environments on them through rotations, it has been my experience that they
do not become a large problem. Anyone who puts in corn after soybeans really
should question whether or not they need a soil insecticide."
Corn is the second crop in the rotation. Tom chose to keep corn in the
system because of convenience and tradition: "I wanted to raise corn, because
that's part of your identity in this area. We're corn growers, and there's a
convenient market for it."
Tom has seen increased corn yields from his system. With strips four rows
wide, the entire corn strip benefits from the "edge effect". Under a
conventional cropping pattern, yields in the middle of the field can be lower
than around the edges, because of excessive heat buildup and health problems.
Tom believes that his four row strips are an optimal size.
The third crop rotated into the system, oats, is planted directly into the
corn stubble the following spring. The oats are harvested for grain or straw,
depending on the market. Following oat harvest, Tom re-builds his ridges and
broadcasts turnips, to provide fall forage for his cattle.
Crop rotations help control weeds, as tillage operations happen at different
times for the various crops. Including oats in the system is particularly
valuable, because the mid-summer harvest helps break weed cycles. Tom has had
some trouble with early weeds, like shepherd's purse, but controls them with
shredding. He believes that weed control is the best argument in favor of
ridge-till planting and cultivation.
The oats have improved soil tilth, as their root system builds soil
structure. It took about three years for him to observe improvements in his
soil, like an exploding earthworm population.
Once he had successfully interrupted weed and insect cycles and improved his
soil, Tom's next concern was to provide winter feed for his cattle. He has 60
head of cattle to feed through the winter. Beginning in the fall, when the
pastures are dormant, he supports his cattle herd by strip grazing the corn
and bean residue, and turnips.
The turnips are the most profitable part of his operation, as he can
potentially graze 300 head of cattle per acre per day on this crop. Tom
figures that he gets 4-5 times more net income per acre from his turnips than
from corn. His input costs for the turnips are minimal, and he has no
harvesting expenses. The animals do the work for him. In his lifetime, Tom
has moved from a conventional corn monoculture to this diversified system. He
quit applying herbicides 6 years ago, and insecticides 10 years ago. He
switched from anhydrous to manure fertilizer last year. He is in the process
of certifying his fields organic. In the future, he would like to provide
extra nitrogen by interseeding a legume into his corn crop.
Tom's system provides him with many quality-of-life benefits as well.
Although the system is more labor-intensive than conventional farming, the
work is spread out rather than bunched into stressful "crunch periods".
Better scheduling leaves him more free time in the day for other things, like
his plane. He has noticed more wildlife on his place, which he appreciates.
His wife, Deb, works in town to support the farm, as many farm women do
these days. Tom's efforts pay taxes and insurance, and his wife's income
keeps food on the table. Good quality of life is more important to the
Larsons than making a lot of money. Says Tom, "I'm willing to accept a lower
standard of living for an improved quality of life."
Much of Tom's inspiration comes from Chinese and Japanese farming systems.
He cites Farmers of Forty Centuries by HF King and One-Straw Revolution by
Mansanobu Fukuoka as favorite titles. He is impressed by how these cultures
use and re-use their own resources as much as possible.
"Basically, do only what's necessary," advises Tom. "Always look at what
you're doing and ask yourself, 'Why am I disking? Why am I planting and
harvesting in this manner?' Constantly ask the question, 'Is this absolutely
necessary, and is there an easier, cheaper way of doing it?'"
Tom prefers to farm from the neck up, substituting management strategies for
labor whenever possible. "I think that we've given away our ability to know
our weeds and our soils. Its gotten to the point where people don't farm
fields anymore. They farm farms."
"There's other things that I could do that would be more financially
rewarding," he adds. "I guess I enjoy the challenge, or I wouldn't do it."
ROTATIONS IN VEGETABLE PRODUCTION
Thomas N. Tomas
Crop rotation in vegetable production depends upon an understanding of the
relationship of various plant families to each other, as well as their
environmental relationships. Vegetables within each plant family are likely
to have the same insect and disease problems. The carrot rust fly larvae
will feed on the roots of dill, celery, fennel, parsley and parsnip, as well
as wild carrot or Queen Anne's lace. The Colorado potato beetle feeds on the
foliage of eggplant and tomato and survives in the wild on the buffalo burr
and horse nettle.
With this information, you can see that rotations should be planned between
plant families and not just different crops. It also indicates that you need
to know what weeds may serve as alternate host plants for vegetable diseases
and insects. Field crops and cover crops in the same plant families could
also perpetuate insect and disease problems. This is one reason why annual
rye grass is so often used as a cover crop and soil builder in vegetable
production. The only member of the grass family commonly grown as a
vegetable is sweet corn.
By rotating cool season with warm season vegetables, weed seed production
cycles can be broken. Planting a succession of short season crops, such as
lettuce followed by green beans followed by a fall cover crop, will allow at
least three flushes of weed seeds to germinate. If the crops are kept clean
and the cover crop tilled in before weeds can set seed, many of the most
vigorous weed seeds in the soil will have been eliminated. The following
year vegetable crops can be grown on relatively weed-free soil. With weed
sensitive crops such as onions, parsnips and carrots it is best to plan ahead
at least two years, and give special attention to weed control in the
Crops that form a dense canopy that shades the soil should be used in
rotation with crops that have an open architecture allowing sunlight to reach
the soil. Crops that are easily cultivated, such as sweet corn, can follow
cucumbers, squash or melons where weed control is difficult once the vines
begin to run. By studying the particular spectrum of weed species that pose
the most serious problems, rotations can be devised that reduce the
production of weed seed while still ensuring a variety of marketable crops.
If there are limited markets for only a few types of vegetables, it may be
possible to rotate with field crops. You can do this in cooperation with an
organic grain or livestock producer if you do not have the equipment or
markets for these crops. You should develop a working relationship with an
organic livestock producer anyway, in order to get organic manure or compost
for your soil. In our area, we think in terms of how vegetables can fit into
a corn, milo, soybeans, winter wheat, alfalfa rotation.
An entire field need not be planted to the same crop. Small grains,
soybeans and field corn can be planted in strips wide enough to accommodate
planting and harvesting equipment. If vegetables are included in the
rotation they can utilize the strips most suited to their needs. If you plan
to plant vegetables following soybeans, it make sense to walk those strips a
few more times to eliminate any weeds going to seed.
Rotations are a tool that must be used with common sense. If the weather
does not cooperate or the market is hot, you may decide to take a chance.
Without an insect or disease problem, onions following onions for two years
may make more sense if the soil fertility is high enough and that is the only
weed-free strip of soil available. Tomatoes following tomatoes or potatoes
may work for the same reasons. The multiple long term benefits of a good
rotation must be kept in mind and weighted against the short-term, one-season
Organic production depends on knowledge and understanding of the interaction
between different members of the biological community in order to avoid
problems, rather than seeking to remedy them when they occur. Each vegetable
grower has to develop rotations that fit their particular farm. It helps to
read what others have done, and to visit other growers to learn the practical
application of these ideas. There is no substitute, however, for trying it on
your farm and observing how things actually work in your piece of the world.
For a more comprehensive discussion of rotations in vegetable crops, read
The New Organic Grower by Eliot Coleman
Annual Meeting Will Focus On Rural Communities
Are you concerned about the future of rural communities and family farms? If
so, then be sure to attend the 1996 Annual Meeting of the Nebraska
Sustainable Agriculture Society, on February 24th. Building Hope for Rural
Communities is the theme of this meeting, which will feature exciting
speakers and workshops, good food, and plenty of friendly people.
Dr. Garth Youngberg, director of the Henry A. Wallace Institute for
Alternative Agriculture and former USDA Organic Farming Coordinator, will
present a keynote address on the theme. Workshops will include making the
most of warm-season grasses; non-chemical weed control; direct marketing meat
and poultry products; growing and marketing herbs; and creative start-up
strategies for beginning farmers.
The meeting will be held at the New World Inn in Columbus, and will include
lunch. Advance registration, due by February 12, costs $20 for members and
$30 for non-members. Late registration costs an additional $5. Accompanying
family members or partners can attend for $10, and full-time students are
eligible for half-price admission. Registration begins at 8:00 am.
For more information, contact Cris or Jill at 402-254-2289.
Come Join Us At the Western Nebraska Conference!
Mark your calendars for February 3, 1996. That's the date of the Nebraska
Sustainable Agriculture Society's Western Nebraska Conference. Themed
Stewardship of the Land and of Community, the conference features an
extraordinary lineup of speakers and workshops.
John Gardner, Extension researcher at the North Dakota State University
Carrington Research Center, will offer a keynote talk on "Farming Beyond the
Field: Our Role in the Community." Dr. Gardner will discuss re-establishing
links between farmers, rural communities, and society at large using
innovative business approaches.
Dr. Gardner will be joined by North Dakota farmer Terry Jacobson in
presenting a workshop, "Ecological Approaches to Crop Production in the Great
Plains." Terry will present a poetry reading at lunchtime (one of his poems
is on page 11). Other workshop topics include an update and discussion on the
most recent developments in Farm Bill legislation; a talk on insect control
of Canada thistle; a panel discussion on alternative crops; and a
presentation on organizing farmers' markets.
The conference will be held at the Stagecoach Inn in Ogallala and will
include lunch. Advance registration, due by January 15, costs $20 for
members and $30 for non-members. Late registration costs an additional $5.
Accompanying family members or partners can attend for $10, and full-time
students are eligible for half-price admission. Registration begins at 8:00
For more information, contact Jane Sooby at (308) 254-3918.
Mentor Meetings Scheduled
Sustainable Ag Mentor Program mentor meetings are scheduled for eastern and
western Nebraska in January and February. All current mentors should try to
attend. The purpose of these meetings is to focus on how to proceed with the
final year of the project and look at ways to evaluate the program. The
eastern meeting is scheduled for Monday, January 8 at Riley's Cafe in Wayne.
The western meeting is scheduled in conjunction with the Western Conference,
on Friday, February 2 at the Stagecoach Inn in Ogallala. Both meetings begin
at 10:00 am. Call Tim Powell for more information: 402-375-1944.
Dairy Grazing Conferences
University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension and NSAS will sponsor two dairy
grazing conferences in February. The first will be held at the Hartington
City Auditorium on February 15, and the second will be held at the Fairbury
4-H building on February 16.The program will feature Dave Forgey, Indiana
dairy grazier, columnist for Hoard's Dairyman, and Director of the American
Forage and Grassland Council. It will also feature a producer panel, and UNL
specialists Bruce Anderson and Rick Grant.
Pre-registration costs $15, or $20 per couple. For more information, call
Mike Lechner in Hartington (402-254-6821) or Bob Stritzke in Fairbury
Board Members Needed!
NSAS is looking for people to run for the board. Anyone can run. Board
members serve three-year terms. Last year, we had four meetings (in Aurora,
Columbus, Ithaca and St. Edward) and a retreat (in Broken Bow). This is a
great opportunity to help steer NSAS into the future. Please call Cris at
402-254-2289 if interested.
NSAS IS MORE THAN FARM PRACTICES
Like most people, I attended my first NSAS meeting because of my interest in
different farming practices. Six years later, I find myself staying here
because of the people. The people share a unique commitment to family,
community, and the land. They bring an enthusiasm that I don't see at many
other agricultural meetings. They don't have all the answers, but are
searching for positive change.
As large agribusiness firms are moving towards vertical integration, many
NSAS members have expressed an interest in direct marketing their products.
I think you may have an advantage because of your economy of scale. In your
case it is because you are smaller and directly linked with the consumer.
Your advantage is in educating the consumer and creating consumer loyalty.
NSAS can help, but you need to get involved by participating in meetings,
and by serving on the board. We also need your involvement in the IMPACT
project and Mentor program. Together we can make positive changes in
agriculture and the food system.
Lowell, our current board president, will be leaving the board this
February. Thanks to him for his hard work.
UNL INTERNS MANAGE INTEGRATED FARMS
Cris Carusi, NSAS
University of Nebraska-Lincoln students can now gain hands-on experience
managing integrated farms, through an innovative internship program.
The Student Internships in Farming Systems Program, also known as the
micro-farm program, gives junior and senior UNL students an opportunity to
manage their own farms for a complete growing season. They work with a number
of different farming systems, ranging from a conventional corn/soybean
rotation to organic and agroforestry systems.
The students design and implement farm plans, perform all field operations,
determine their harvest yields, calculate their net returns and compare the
energy efficiencies of each farming system.
The objective of this program, according to Chuck Francis, is to give
students practical experience with sustainable farming systems and to help
them gain an appreciation of the complex interactions taking place on these
farms. Francis, who directs UNL's Center for Sustainable Agricultural
Systems, developed the micro-farm program, and supervises it along with
graduate student Richard Olson.
The internships last a full year beginning in January, and include full-time
summer employment for the students. In addition to managing their farms, the
students take on an additional research project and complete sustainable
agriculture coursework. Each student works with a farmer mentor, who provides
real-life expertise to the learning experience.
The 11-to 20-acre micro-farms are located at the University's Agricultural
Research and Development Center near Ithaca.
In 1995, the students worked with five different farming systems, including
conventional and diversified corn-soybean rotations, organic and agroforestry
systems, and a forage-based beef system.
The conventional corn-soybean system uses full chemicals and disk tillage.
The diversified corn-soybean rotation incorporates sorghum and winter wheat,
and a section of the farm will be planted to alfalfa for 4-5 years. The
diversified system uses the same chemicals and tillage as the conventional
The organic system involves a complex, 24-year rotation of corn, soybeans,
sorghum, clover and alfalfa planted into a six-strip rotational unit. Weeds
are managed through rotary and hand hoe cultivation.
The agroforestry system includes the same crops raised in a 40-year rotation
cycle, along with shrubs, Christmas trees and shelterbelt trees. Harvested
seed from the shrubs and the Christmas trees will boost the long-term farm
income from this system.
The forage-based beef system incorporates separate cool and warm-season
pastures. Cattle are rotated between paddocks roughly every 4-5 days,
depending on the weather. The warm-season pastures are burned in the spring
to control weeds and cool-season grasses. The cool-season pastures are
currently planted to brome and reed canarygrass, while little bluestem and
switchgrass are the main warm-season grasses.
Students with an interest in sustainable farming and willingness to work
hard from any department at UNL are welcome to apply for this program. Four
interns participated in 1995, and nine have been selected for 1996.
The program is funded by a grant from the Sustainable Agriculture Research
and Education (SARE) program, with additional support from UNL and corporate
Nebraska's micro-farm program is unique in that students manage their own
farms. The University of Minnesota is planning a similar internship program
for this summer.
The micro-farm program has received an enthusiastic response from UNL
faculty members. " This practical intern program has captured the interest of
professors in ways I never expected," said Francis. "They've really bought
into the idea of experiential education. It's very exciting."
For more information contact Richard Olson or Chuck Francis, 225 Keim Hall,
University of Nebraska, Lincoln, NE 68583-0949; 402-472-2056.
INTEGRATED CANADIAN FARM BOASTS DIVERSITY
Victoria Mundy, Extension Educator
Using integrated farming systems in a world that encourages monoculture is a
challenge anywhere you go. Other countries besides ours have market and
policy structures which support single-crop farms and the use of purchased
inputs. Still, innovative, energetic farmers everywhere find ways to design
farming systems and use production methods which protect the soil, balance
nutrient cycles, and reduce agricultural pollution. Rene Brunelle of Quebec,
Canada, is one of them. I met Rene in Ames, Iowa, at the Association for
Farming Systems Research and Extension conference, in November 1995. One
unusual and beautiful picture of a clover-and-corn intercrop on his farm
caught my attention so that I just had to talk to him.
Rene and his family, and his two brothers' families, have a 700-acre farm.
In Quebec, the only reliably profitable crop is corn, which sounds familiar.
So - everybody grows corn, which also sounds familiar. Erosion, nutrient
leaching and runoff, and chemical contamination of soil and water are common
agricultural problems in Quebec, just as they are in the midwestern United
States. Rene and his family partners decided that they did not want a
monoculture farm which damaged the environment. They had to design a system
which would remain profitable, but be environmentally healthy. Their
objective was to have zero pollution from their farm.
No one person designed the Brunelles' farming system, which evolved over
about eight years of discussion, searching for information, and trial and
error. The families always asked the question, "Why should we use this
particular practice on our farm?" rather than "How could we fit this
particular practice into our farm?" By making decisions this way, with the
emphasis on reasons rather than methods, the Brunelles always made sure that
their choices were consistent with their overall goal - a profitable farm
that produced no pollution. It was no use to the Brunelles to be able to do
something if it shouldn't be done.
The farm is complex, and I would have to live with it for a while to
understand it completely. You might have to read this article twice! I've
tried to write exactly what Rene described to me. As you read, keep in mind
that Quebec gets more water than Nebraska, and the precipitation is more
evenly distributed over the growing season. What works for Rene in Quebec
won't necessarily work for someone in Nebraska, but maybe an idea or two
would fit on your farm.
An intricate crop rotation plan is inter-related with tillage, fertility,
and weed control on this farm. Corn is the primary crop, since it is
dependably profitable. Ridge-till is the major tillage method for all row
crops. All the corn is grown with some starter N. Soybeans planted on
ridges which are less than three years old also have some starter N applied,
as Rene feels that a little boost of N is helpful to plants on young,
undeveloped ridges. Leguminous intercrops in the rotation supply more N.
Rene's farm has 300 sows which are fed grain from the farm; slurry from
these animals provides nutrients. Rotary hoeing helps out with weed control,
as do the different crops in the rotation.
The central idea of the rotation is to have corn by itself in a field for
only one year: no straight corn-on-corn. Most crops are planted around late
May. Corn will either be grown alone in a field, or strip-cropped with
soybeans. Corn which is strip-cropped with soybeans will have an intercrop
as well - something grown in between the corn rows. In some strips, corn
will have an early-season intercrop such as buckwheat, rye, or oats. These
early-season intercrops provide some weed control without herbicides. They
also take up some of the starter N which is available before the corn can get
it; this reduces the possibility of N-leaching.
40 to 50 days later, the early intercrops will be plowed down for organic
matter and to release nutrients which the corn is then old enough to use.
Ten days after plowdown, some of the strips which had early-season
intercrops will have a mid-season leguminous intercrop planted. Crimson
clover, subterranean clover, and persian clover, all of which are annuals,
are favorites of the Brunelles.