Chad Johnson knows a thing or two about the learning process.
A third-generation farmer, he has also taught middle school for nearly thirty years. “I’ve always farmed and taught concurrently. I used to milk the cows before school,” he remembers.
Johnson grew up working with his father and grandfather on the family dairy farm. Now, he raises 60 head of beef and around 30,000 chickens, and he grows corn, beans, hay, and wheat on 700 acres in Noble and Whitley counties. Despite – or perhaps because of – his years of experience in both the classroom and the field, he is always learning.
Over the last few years, he’s started exploring how conservation practices might meet the needs and goals of his farming operation.
“What can I do to make [my land] a little more drought-tolerant, to build up organic matter, to increase water-holding capacity?” Johnson asks himself. He has watched colleagues on neighboring farms use techniques like cover cropping and no-till with great success.
Johnson’s oldest son, whose farm in southern Indiana is exclusively no-till, has also shown him how those practices can improve soil health. He recalls one visit when they walked the cornfields together.
“It had just rained. The earthworms – I’ve never seen so many. Earthworm holes everywhere,” Johnson said.
With encouragement and guidance from Scott Ziegler, TWF Watershed Conservationist, Johnson began planting cover crops and leaving some fields untilled. Gradually, he added intercropping and crop rotation, and he built manure storage facilities and water and sediment control basins.
Some of Johnson’s projects are supported through TWF’s Soil Health Initiative, which assists farmers in the Upper Tippecanoe River Watershed with projects that build soil health and protect water quality.
Cover crops can reduce the need for fertilizer, for example, by adding nutrients to the soil. Water and sediment control basins help reduce erosion, and manure storage facilities help keep animal waste out of nearby waterways. Over time, these practices can also help cut costs and lead to better yields for the farmer.
But building soil health requires patience, and farmers like Johnson have to carefully weigh the potential risks and rewards of incorporating conservation practices. He points out that what works in one field may not work in another, and numerous factors–from soil type to weather to crop prices–can affect outcomes.
“There are so many variables,” he says. “If you change more than one, it’s hard to figure out which had the impact.”
He also notes the unique challenges for a smaller operation like his, where losing any yield is a serious concern. Planting cover crops in every field, for example, is a gamble he can’t afford.
“I don’t have it all figured out,” Johnson says. “I’m learning as I go. I’m trying new things to make my farm better a little bit at a time. Sometimes I feel like I take steps backward, but in general, I’m taking my farm forward in small ways. So far, I like what I see.”
Our lakes need help. Our lakes need you. You can volunteer on clean water projects, take an action pledge, attend an event, donate funds – there are so many ways to make a difference! Will you join us?