By DAVID GREEN
With deep gullies and a washout big enough to swallow a pickup truck, Chad Hart knew some major work was in order if he was going to turn his new property into productive farmland.
Chad is following a pattern that’s common to many farmers who have an eye toward stewardship of the land: Buy the property; plant it into wheat; after the harvest in late July, get busy on land improvements. The final element, of course, is to get the land back into production the next spring.
Brad Hart has worked with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service for years on a variety of projects, said Tom Van Wagner of the Lenawee Soil Conservation District. Brad recommended that his son develop a relationship with the USDA to tackle critical erosion problems on the farm.
At the back of the property, the land slopes downward at a rate of eight feet every hundred. Runoff picks up a lot of speed as it heads down the field and washes out soil.
“I can’t tell you how much erosion there was here,” Van Wagner said.
He describes the south 34 acres of the farm as “a totally different world than the front 60 acres.”
“The whole back end of the farm was in the 10-year Conservation Reserve Program,” Van Wagner said. “Chad wanted to repair the washouts in the field, but put the majority of the 34 acres back into production.”
Most of the erosion is gully erosion caused by surface water runoff. In Lenawee County, that problem is fixed by using grass waterways and/or Water and Sediment Control Basins (WASCOBs).
“Grass waterways stabilize the eroded areas by shaping out a channel and seeding it to a permanent grass cover,” Van Wagner explained. “WASCOBs intercept the surface water in a cross slope temporary basin and release the water through an underground outlet over a 24-hour period.”
After evaluating the soil erosion issues on the farm with Hart, several alternative solutions were discussed. In the end, a detailed plan was developed incorporating a variety of conservation projects.
The land now benefits from: more than 100,000 feet of subsurface drains, two erosion control structures, 14 WASCOBs (with dikes and terraces), five acres of contour buffer strips and three acres of conservation cover on steep sand hills. Cover crops, conservation rotation and conservation tillage systems will be used during crop production.
Hart signed up for two cost-share programs to assist in paying for his conservation plan. EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentive Program) and CREP (Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program) are voluntary erosion control and wildlife habitat projects sponsored by the United States Department of Agriculture.
Hart will receive cost share payments that range from 50 to 65 percent of the cost, depending on the conservation program.
Each dike has a grass filter strip measuring about 50 feet wide—all the way across the field. In addition to the wildlife component of the strips, they should make for easier farming, Van Wagner said, by keeping heavy equipment away from the dikes.
CREP regulations require Hart to maintain the filter strips for 15 years. In addition, manure must be applied on the fields only during certain times of the year and will be incorporated into the soil to minimize the potential for runoff that could work its way into the subsurface drainage system.
In the future, Hart will seed the south 34 acres to alfalfa to improve soil structure and reduce erosion.
Van Wagner expects that Hart will recoup the cost of the drainage tile in about five years. Tiling, he said, should result in a yield increase of between 15 and 20 percent.
“This work will pay for itself a lot faster now,” Dave Dunn of Dave’s Drainage said. “It will take about 15 more bushels an acre to pay for it and we figure we can get that easily.”
That sounds good to Hart. The demand for grain is there, he said, and he wants to do his part to fill the need.
His goal is to produce as much as possible from his acreage—and to make it a good farm.
“We want to make it better than when we came,” Dunn said.
“A lot better,” Hart adds.
Van Wagner handles more than 150 conservation projects every year, but he sees this one as different than the others.
“What’s unique about this is that a young farmer wants to do it,” Van Wagner said. “Chad came in to talk to us about an erosion problem. There are a lot of projects involved in it and it’s larger than a typical effort.”
Hart graduated from Hudson High School in 2004 and studied at MSU’s Institute of Agricultural Technology. December will mark two years since he’s been back at the family farm. He started talking with Van Wagner about a conservation plan and program last December.
“It’s a pretty big puzzle, really,” Hart said, looking across the field at the heavy equipment shaping the line of a dike.
As the pieces of the puzzle come together, Hart will end up with a productive farm—a farm that optimizes its potential, Van Wagner said, with minimal soil loss.