Sometimes the tall buildings of Indianapolis look so close to Mike Starkey that it seems he could almost reach out and touch them from his combine cab. “Our farm is unique because it is adjacent to city limits on the west side of Indianapolis,” he says. “This is a very urban area.”
M&J Farms, located near Brownsburg, Ind., is a sixth-generation family farm that has watched the city grow right to its doorstep. Mike and his nephew, Jeff Starkey, operate the farm. They are joined by Mike’s son, Nick; Jeff’s son, Zach; and full-time employee AJ Adkins.
The Starkey family has the usual challenges of moving machinery in an area with heavy automobile traffic. And by farming in the School Branch watershed, M&J Farms faces extra scrutiny. The School Branch stream is the third largest tributary feeding Eagle Creek reservoir, which is a primary drinking water source for Indianapolis. This critically important reservoir is the next stop for water leaving the Starkey family farmland, whether it exits through tile drains or flows from the surface.
With the spotlight trained on their farming practices, M&J Farms has taken a proactive approach to stewardship and sustainability. The Starkey family, which has a long-term commitment to no-till, added cover crops in 2005. “Maintaining clean water and controlling soil erosion are top priorities,” Mike Starkey says. “We also promote workshops and other educational events where we can share our story with others.”
Because of its unique location, M&J Farms is ground zero for scientists documenting water quality improvements that result from farm conservation practices. “We were approached by the local university eight years ago,” Mike recalls. “Their researchers wanted to see how our no-till and other conservation work was helping to protect water quality.”
Scientists from Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) built an edge-of-the-field bioswale/bioreactor on the farm. Researchers from IUPUI’s Center for Earth and Environmental Science regularly monitor water quality at the bioswale as well as the field’s drainage tile.
The small, 8.4-square-mile School Branch watershed, which is dominated by agriculture, is on the Indiana Department of Environmental Management’s 303d list as impaired waters because of its high level of nutrients and sediment. A consortium of researchers are constructing a project involving the watershed in an attempt to isolate water quality impacts from agriculture as opposed to other sources, such as suburban development or forest land.
The USDA-NRCS National Water Quality Initiative will serve as the cornerstone of the study. Edge-of-field water quality monitoring will be a critical component allowing researchers to identify solutions for water quality improvements from ag land. “We are entering an agreement with NRCS for a seven-year project that involves edge-of-field monitoring,” Mike says. “This will allow them to collect raw data that shows we are reducing nutrients on a 24/7 basis.”
He credits the farm’s emphasis on soil health for improving the way the land handles water. “Our soil acts like a sponge,” he says. “Years ago, we would get a 2-inch rain and water would be standing everywhere. With our use of no-till and cover crops and the improvement in our soil structure, we are getting great water movement. We no longer see water standing after a big rain. It is absorbed into the soil.”
The 2012 growing season proved that point, as a wet spring was followed by a severe drought. “The stored moisture was enough to get us through the growing season with 100-bushel-per-acre corn yields,” he says. “Without our improvements in soil health, I don’t think we could have seen that much yield.”
The farm is now 100% no-till in both corn and soybean production. That journey has experienced a few bumps along the way.
“Our farm has been no-tilling soybeans since 1989,” Mike says. “We tried to no-till corn in the early 1990s. After two or three years, it just was not working. We couldn’t get the yields; we couldn’t get the right planter setup. And I really didn’t have the support from others who could help me learn to no-till.”
He tried no-till corn again in 1999, when a farming acquaintance helped him set up a planter and taught him the finer points of no-till corn production. “That experience showed me that learning from peers is a vital part of no-till,” Mike says. “Farmers find out from each other what works best and what does not work.”
M&J Farms hosts a clinic each year. “We invite our peers and others to talk about improvements in no-till practices,” he says. “In order to make no-till work, you have to be open to change and have the mindset that you are going to make it work.”
Whether sharing ideas with other farmers or sharing their story with a broader audience, the shop at M&J Farms has become “conservation central” for discussions about agriculture. “It’s exciting to help educate our neighbors who are not farmers,” Mike says. “We host school children on visits to the farm, and I talk with students in science classes about the soil. We need to be on the forefront of educating others about how farmers are really conservationists.”
Some of those non-farm visitors are from the political arena. Indiana Lieutenant Governor Becky Skillman joined a number of conservation partners at the Starkey farm in 2011 to sign an expansion of the Conservation Resources Enhancement Program. U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly sat down with a dozen or so conservation-minded farmers in the M&J Farms shop a couple of years ago to ask one-on-one questions about soil health practices.
Mike serves as state treasurer for the Indiana Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts and is a supervisor for the Hendricks County Soil and Water Conservation District. The farm has received a number of awards, including the 2011 Conservation Award from the Hoosier chapter of the Soil and Water Conservation Society.
The Starkey family tries to squeeze the greatest possible efficiency from fertilizer nutrients—not just to protect water resources but also to improve the farm’s bottom line. In addition to regular soil testing, the farm spoon-feeds nitrogen (N) to the corn crop, starting with an application from the planter.
To fine-tune the farm’s approach to N fertility, nutrient needs are evaluated using such techniques as a chlorophyll meter just before tasseling, aerial imagery and end-of-season stalk nitrate testing. Mike says he’s been able to cut back on fertilizer use over the past decade, while yields have been increasing. “We attribute that to our no-till approach, as our soil health is improving and our soils are better able to release nutrients that the crop needs.”
All of these efforts are part of the approach to stewardship at M&J Farms. “I guess you would consider me a conservationist farmer,” Mike says. “But I also consider myself a protector of the living soil. Years ago, I went to a no-till conference and heard a presenter talk about the living soil. It really turned a light on for my thinking—we need to protect and feed this soil.”
In the process, the Starkeys are helping protect water quality for their urban neighbors while ensuring that future generations have healthy soil to farm. “My goal for my legacy would be not only to protect the soil but also to improve upon it,” Mike says. “I would like to build upon it for the next generation.”