John Mesko: (00:30)
Welcome back to The People of Soil Health podcast. One of the things I love about talking with SHP farmers is how creative they can be when it comes to achieving their soil health goals. Chris Gaesser is one of those who isn't afraid to think outside the box and try something different, as long as it moves him towards those targets. Along with his family, Chris operates Gaesser Farms in Iowa, where he has adopted both cover crops and no-till on a significant number of acres. Chris was one of the seven farmers featured in our new report Conservation's Impact on the Bottom Line. So, I'm excited to dig into some of that in our conversation. Chris, thanks for coming on the show.
Chris Gaesser: (01:10)
Hey, no problem. I enjoy doing stuff like this, I'm always happy to talk to people about what we're doing.
John Mesko: (01:16)
Well, that's good, and I hope everybody that is listening is going to benefit from this, I'm sure they will. I did talk a little bit about your farm in the intro here, but can you tell us a little bit more about your farm? Who's involved, what kinds of things are going on, what your rotation is like, those sort of things?
Chris Gaesser: (01:35)
Yeah, so we farm down here in Southwest Iowa, Adams and Union County mostly, between Corning and Creston. I farm with my parents, and my wife, and we have one full-time employee, and we get some seasonal help. We mostly farm corn and soybeans, we grow some of our own rye for our own cover crop seed. We do a lot of research on our farms, we're always looking to try new things and collaborate with people just to kind of change everything up whenever we can.
John Mesko: (02:08)
Yeah, a lot of the folks that we work with have kind of that same mentality, like you just mentioned, whether they call it research, or just continual education, or trial and error. It's this interest in trying to learn something new, or trying to improve, maximize, be efficient, whatever the case may be. I know that we want to hear some of the things you're doing with the conservation program on your farm, but I'm curious, you've been working with Soil Health Partnership since about 2016. What was it about our program that kind of sparked your interest and led you to consider us?
Chris Gaesser: (02:50)
Well, when they originally came to talk to us, one of my favorite things was there wasn't really a set guideline. It was, what do you want to do your farm to change or improve conservation, and soil health, and do a better job? If you can come up with something that we think kind of fits into that, and we know that helps, then we'll help you do that. There wasn't like, "Oh, you can do this, this or this." It was kind of open season on whatever you wanted to do, and that's not always the case, especially when you're working with bigger groups and stuff. They usually have a plan, and you follow it, and instead we got to do what we wanted to do, and they kind of adapted to us, which I really like.
John Mesko: (03:33)
Well, I've been working in the area of what I might call helping farmers to make good decisions about their farming practices. Whether that's a change in cropping systems, or rotation, or tillage, or whatever the case may be. For a long time, I've been at this quite a bit. It seems like everybody has a different trigger point, or a different point at which the scale tips, and they're ready to make a decision. A lot of folks that have been early adopters of some of these conservation practices have been doing it for a long time. It's maybe something they grew up with, or their parents were particularly experimental, or they've picked up and carried it forward.
John Mesko: (04:15)
But as we reach into the masses of farmers, the large numbers of acres, the farmers that are certainly aware of what's been going on. You'd have to be living in a cave to not have heard about the value of cover crops, and so forth. But a lot of those farmers are not moving across the line, so to speak, just yet. It's taking many different approaches to encourage folks to try new practices, and so forth. When it came to your approach, and your consideration of cover crops, and no-till in particular, what are some of the things that really helped you understand the benefits, and really helped you make good decisions about how you want to make those changes?
Chris Gaesser: (05:03)
Well, on the no-till side, for sure, I mean, we were doing that long before I was super involved. My original plan wasn't to farm, and that kind of plays into all the research and stuff that I like to do, because I was going to be an... Well, I am an agronomist, but I was trained to be an agronomist. I wanted to work for a company like chemical or seed, and do research, or kind of be involved in that world. So, that's what I went to school for, and I got out of school, and I got a job in the industry. I learned a lot, and I gained a lot of great knowledge from that, but it just wasn't what I wanted. I was kind of helping out part-time on the farm, and that was where I wanted to be.
Chris Gaesser: (05:44)
It also kind of gave me the opportunity to be more involved, and I had an investment in what I was trying, and I wanted to try new things. I've learned all these different practices... Especially when you're in college, you kind of get a little more access to the new things that are coming, and you get a little more excited about it. Then once I adopted that mentality, I always like to try something new. As long as I can make it work, and I can try it on a small scale first, and it's plausible for our business practice. I want to try something different, I want to try some new. It's fun, it's exciting that way.
John Mesko: (06:23)
Well, I think that's a great approach, and again, I think that's very common across our network. But I know that for you, you've said that it's not a high priority for you to have a lot of external money flowing into the process. A lot of farmers that I talk to will say that they're going to be motivated by an incentive payment, or something to help offset the cost of adopting a new practice. Tell me your thoughts on that? Not only on your farm, but also as you think about how these practices are going to be implemented across the vast number of acres in the US, how does the value of an incentive payment or some kind of cost share play into that for you?
Chris Gaesser: (07:06)
Well, I think it starts that our original motivation wasn't because it was something we had to do, it something we wanted to do. We started back in 2010, and it was our third year in a row of getting four inches of rain in one hour in the spring time. We were both standing in the house, because it had just started raining, and you can just see the waterfall effect down our terraces. It was washing out gullies, and things like that, and everything we were doing already wasn't good enough. The no-till, it helps and it works, but... Even our terraces, and waterways, and none of that is built to take that much at one time. So, we knew we had to make a change, and so our original focus was for erosion control. Preserving our assets, and keeping our soil there, and making sure that we could keep doing things for the foreseeable future.
Chris Gaesser: (08:02)
Now, we're understanding a lot of other benefits that you get from it that are just as good, or in some cases even better for really monetizing that, or making some money, or showing a more... An easier show an advantage besides just preserving your asset. So, when we started out there wasn't a whole lot of extra money going around for assistance and stuff. Then when they started to do it, we kind of adopted this mindset of, okay, this is something we're going to have to do at one point, and what if there isn't always an incentive? The fact that there is is great, but if there's not we need to be able to make this work without that. So, that was always kind of our mindset, now we get in, we do the crop insurance deal where you get a crop insurance discount based on the amount of acres you have for cover crops and stuff. But we don't do the CSP, and some of that other stuff.
John Mesko: (09:06)
Well, I think any practice that is touted as sustainable really needs to be sustainable. In other words, it needs to be valuable without external support across the whole spectrum.
Chris Gaesser: (09:19)
Right, well, and I don't want to downplay those programs at all, I think they're great. Especially for getting people started, because there's a learning curve, for sure. It helps you work through those growing pains for the first two, three years, so that way you have some help. So, if you make some mistakes, which you will... I mean, I can tell you from experience, and that helps a lot. So, I don't want anybody to think that I was bad mouthing those programs at all, I think they're great, and I think they're needed, but I think we should also not plan on having them forever either.
John Mesko: (09:53)
Well, absolutely, and your comments are a great segue. I mean, this is one of the things we found in the report that I referenced earlier, that you were kind enough to sit down with us, and share some information about your operation, and your practices, and your costs. When we look at that, we find that those farmers who have been doing these kinds of practices longer are more successful and more profitable with those practices, there's a learning curve. It's not just as simple as, oh, we're going to start using cover crops, it takes some extra effort.
Chris Gaesser: (10:28)
Yeah, and I mean, the important thing is for people who are interested in getting started in anything, but cover crops included, is always start small. A lot of times... I've done it before too, you want to try something new and you're like, "Well, if we're going to try it, let's just do it." Then if you make a mistake, then you make a mistake on a lot of acres instead of just a few acres. So, anybody who wants to get going, I'm like, "Pick a small field or a corner of a field, and if you can put it in the back of a field. So that way, if you do mess it up other people don't necessarily see it, you don't have to talk about it with a bunch of people, it's just between you and whoever."
John Mesko: (11:10)
Yeah, right, good point. I said in the intro to the podcast here, you're pretty creative when it comes to achieving some of these sustainability goals. One thing we've learned too, is every farm implements practices differently, every farm has a different set of resource goals, and so forth. So, tell us what your secret sauce is? What contributes to your cover crop program being cost-effective and successful?
Chris Gaesser: (11:40)
Well, one of the main things we do is we grow all our own seed. We pick a field or a part of a field that either needs an extended rotation for erosion reasons, or things like that, or we want to make some land improvements. Then we save that for our seed for the year, and we generally have a decent amount of extra too. We sell a little bit of that. So, we can clean our own seed, and we get a germ tested, we sell a little bit. When we grow it ourselves, it generally saves us a lot of money. Because especially when we first got started, if you wanted to get it someplace else, it was 20, $23 a bushel, and we could grow it for way less than that. Then, like I said, it affords us the opportunity to make land improvements, or extend the rotation on a piece that needs it, or some things like that. So, that's one of our main deals, and then applications.
Chris Gaesser: (12:42)
We started doing some with an airplane, and then a little bit of drill. We realized early that airplanes and helicopters work some places, but where we are, it doesn't work so much. There's a little bit of a roll, and some of the fields are odd shaped, and then so either you don't get the end rows, or they get a little bit on the neighbor. Then if it's on the neighbor, then we have to go spray that for them, and that just creates more headaches, and it's more expensive to do. So, by broadcasting some early with the dry box until about the first week of October, when it starts to cool down, spreading it on top of the ground doesn't work as well. Then we transition to drilling it, and by doing some of those things, we see some cost savings. Now, we're doing more experimenting with spreading into standing beans, so we can get out ahead of that. So, any way that we can try to save a little bit here and there, we're trying to make it work, and be as efficient, and time-efficient as possible.
John Mesko: (13:44)
Yeah, that's very interesting. Everybody has a different approach on the seeding method, and sounds like you're into to doing whatever is the best way to get the seed out there most cost-effective.
Chris Gaesser: (13:55)
Yeah. Well, and I've heard of all different kinds of ways. We already have the drill and the dry box, so that works for us. But I know people who have modified corn planters, or they got different discs, or different things just to make what they already had work for the cover. I think that's the key, is working with what you already have as much as possible to make the system work.
John Mesko: (14:21)
Yeah, I think that's spot on. One of the things that we are really trying to accomplish at Soil Health Partnership is helping to move these practices to scale. There's somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 to 20 million acres of cover crops in the United States. Some of those acres are not what we would consider Midwestern row crop acres. Some of those acres are on the fringes of, we might even call it commodity production. So, depending who you talk to, we probably have around 15 million commodity acres that are planted to cover crops. But there's 170 million acres in the US of commodity row crop, corn soybeans, basically.
John Mesko: (15:07)
If we could move more cover crops and no-till, for example, onto those acres, we'd see a lot of changes in our environment. We'd see a lot of changes on our farms, and so forth. When you think about what kinds of things have helped you to advance these practices on larger scales, what advice would you have for farmers who are running some bigger operation? My experience with some of these 10,000 acre growers, and so forth, is that labor is spread very thin, the equipment is spread very thin, time available is spread very thin. Any advice for that type of operation as they think about implementing some of these practices?
Chris Gaesser: (15:49)
Yeah, it's tough, time is our biggest constraint. We only actually get cover on probably 60 to 65% of our acres every year I would like to do 100%, but it just comes to that time piece between harvest and everything else, it becomes an issue. That's why we're doing some more of that experimenting with spreading into standing beans. I have some friends who are working with Hagie on their drop system. They have a new drop system for the front of the Hagie that will spread into standing corn, and it runs drops between the rows, and some people like that. Basically, we need to find more ways to get it in the ground before the season. Then on the way far out that I don't think we're going to figure out for a while, we're doing some work with perennial cover crops. We're receiving a bluegrass, and then it stays there all the time, which hopefully is the future. But I don't know if it's the answer or not. We're still in the very beginning stages of that, and I'm sure there's going to be a lot of challenges.
Chris Gaesser: (16:56)
I don't know what's going to come up. Again, I would just kind of peddle back to working with what you have already, and then trying to do it when you're not doing the other stuff, or at least if you're going to be doing it while you're harvesting and stuff. That's how we got started with the dry box and the spreader. While it's still warm, if you run the spreader behind the combine, I can do 150, 60 acres in an hour, an hour and a half. That's quick, and as much of it that I can do that way, the more I'm going to get done. So, that's why I think there's going to be a lot more of the over the top while the crop is still standing kind of thing. That's where aerial applications come in, because I know there's a lot of areas that works in. I know in Indiana, there's a lot of guys that make that system work really well. It's just here, we haven't had great luck with it.
John Mesko: (17:52)
Well, you mentioned Indiana, and some of our work out there validates what you just said. We also have a research project going on in Kentucky right now, we did a podcast a couple of months ago about this. But we have a research project going on right now where we're testing seeders that mount on the combine. So, you've got a seed box on the combine and it's an airflow to put seed in right behind the corn head on that combine. I mean, the jury's out, we were still evaluating this. But in my mind, not only is it time, but it is another pass across the field. I'm sure the combine doesn't use much more fuel to have that seed attached. You have to run the combine across, so why not kill two birds with one stone in that pass? Those are the kinds of innovations I think that are being developed that could be game changers.
Chris Gaesser: (18:49)
Yeah, I agree. Especially if you have an efficient system for refilling, if you can find a way to either refill quickly, or hold enough that it's not putting too much extra weight on the front of the combine. I think I've actually seen a system where they got a new one where you pull a kind of a cart behind the combine too. There's all kinds of new things in the works, and I feel like everything is going to kind of work for different people. So, people have options, and I think that's important too. Because there's a guy I really like that says, "There's no silver bullet approach to a lot of things in farming, you need more of a silver shotgun." Not everything works for everybody, and I've always liked that saying a lot.
John Mesko: (19:35)
Well, I think what we're really hitting on here and it's something that doesn't, in my opinion, doesn't get mentioned enough, farmers are the ultimate problem solvers. Because if you buy a Ford pickup, or a Chevy pickup, or Ram pickup, or any kind of pickup, it looks pretty much the same. It's got four wheels, it's got a driver's seat, it's got a steering wheel, it's got an engine. It's pretty similar, and the assembly line used to produce those vehicles is pretty much the same. I mean, there's only so many different ways that you can assemble a vehicle.
John Mesko: (20:13)
But there's as many different ways to assemble a farming operation as there are farmers, whether it's geography, or weather pattern, or interest of the farmer, or market availability. I mean, there is just no end to the variability, and so the successful farmers are those who can assimilate all of the variables, and solve a problem for maximum long-term sustainability. My hat is off to you, and the other folks that were part of our study, and all our farmers that are working on this to help understand and promote some of these practices. Which I think in the long run are going to be really, really beneficial to US agriculture.
Chris Gaesser: (20:57)
Well, thank you, I really appreciate it. I think another one of the keys is talking to somebody who's done it already. Not everybody can talk to people in their area if they're already doing it, but if you can network people, even from other states to help get ideas on what might work, or what we know doesn't work. There's no shame in asking for help, why make mistakes if somebody else already made them? I just think it's not always as intuitive as we want it to be, because agriculture can be competitive, and I get that. So, you can't always look for help in your immediate area. But I think most of us at least have someone we can talk to somewhere, or get a hold of, or through a network can find people to help us out. Just to help us make as few mistakes as possible.
John Mesko: (21:49)
You said it really well, Chris, and again, I appreciate not only what you're doing there on your farm for the environment that you work in, but also especially the extra efforts you made to be a part of our study Conservation's Impact on the Bottom Line. The information you were able to share with us, and your learnings have helped us to really make a good report. That report is available, for those of you who are listening, on our website at soilhealthpartnership.org, it's one of our more recent outputs. We hope that's something that will benefit you as you listen and learn. So, with that, Chris, thank you so much for your time today. Wish you the best in 2021, in the growing season. Maybe when we get to traveling again, I'll have a chance to meet you in person.
Chris Gaesser: (22:36)
Yeah, no problem. This was fun, I enjoy doing stuff like this.
John Mesko: (22:39)
All right, thank you very much.