- Andy Bensend, Dallas, Wis. (Midwest Region)
- Keith Masser, Sacramento, Pa. (Northeast Region)
- Matt Griggs, Humboldt, Tenn. (South Region)
Each winner will be recognized at the ASA Awards Banquet on March 3, 2017, at Commodity Classic in San Antonio, Texas. During the banquet, one of the farmers will be chosen as the national winner.
Check out their stories:
Andy Bensend has been on a journey for a good 30 years now — a voyage of learning that has put him in touch with an environmentally sensitive, yet highly productive, approach to farming.
He’s not shy when it comes to talking about his journey, but he would rather show his fellow farmers the fruits of this approach by demonstrating them.
He often hosts events on land that he farms in northwest Wisconsin near the town of Dallas in Barron County.
One of those demonstrations from a couple of years ago still stands out in the mind of Tyler Gruetzmacher, conservationist for Barron County’s Department of Land Services. “It was a wet summer, and Andy cleared out a 100-foot square in a standing corn field the day before he hosted a field day on his farm,” he recalls. “The field was a heavy silt loam, and a thunderstorm soaked the field overnight. I went out to perform an infiltration test and found that this saturated soil was able to infiltrate an inch of water in only five and a half minutes. When a soil absorbs water that fast, it can’t rain hard enough to cause runoff.”
Hearing that anecdote brings a smile to Bensend’s face. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned over these years, it is the fact that the best way to reduce soil erosion is to make sure the water that falls doesn’t need to leave the farm,” he says.
“If we can keep the soil working like a sponge to absorb the rainfall, instead of moving water sideways across the surface toward a stream or waterway, we have nearly eliminated the opportunity for off-target movement of phosphorus, sediment, and all the other things that can be problematic when they show up downstream.”
North country farming
Locals describe Barron County as a peninsula of agriculture jutting into the north woods of Wisconsin. Traditionally a top dairy county, it has changed with the consolidation of that industry into a mix of cash grain along with fewer but larger dairy operations. Bensend’s farming career and quest for conservation has been driven by these changes. “When I was in high school, there were about 70 operating dairy farms in Dallas Township,” he recalls. “Today, I think the number is closer to six. The difference is the size of those dairy herds has grown dramatically.”
As that has happened, the area devoted to hay and forage has shifted to row crops. “With that has come the challenges with trying to keep our topsoil where it belongs,” Bensend says.
“During the 1930s this area had a lot of soil erosion. My grandfather was a land contractor and built many waterways.
I grew up watching that conservation work, and it really instilled in me the need to protect our most precious natural resource, our soil.”
Bensend’s farming career got off to a rough start. After graduating from college, he bought a 240-acre farm and 50 dairy cows in 1981; the brutal farm economy put an end to his dream of farming as he liquidated in 1985. But he took a job in sales management with a seed company and began renting some marginal crop acres to farm on the side.
Eventually he developed a winning formula based on no-till, integrated pest management, crop rotation, minimal equipment investment, and perseverance.
Today, his enterprises include more than 4,000 acres of primarily corn and soybeans, using no-till or strip-till practices; he also has a custom farming business that serves area dairy producers, in addition to a consulting service that assists area farmers with agronomy and nutrient management planning.
The key to his farming success has been the ability to restore productivity to land that has been depleted by erosion or other factors. “My strategy has been really quite simple,” Bensend says. “Number one is to reduce tillage. My goal is to eliminate tillage almost entirely. The second is to correct deficiencies. If we can use livestock waste, manure is a great way to correct some of those deficiencies.”
The next step is to restore soil quality.
“Soil health can be improved by a growing crop on the ground at all times,” Bensend says. “In the last five to seven years we have really tried to ramp up the use of cover crops in our operation.
When we have the chance to have something green and growing on that ground, we try to capture that opportunity.”
Reducing tillage allows organisms in the soil to flourish. “Earthworms are my moldboard plow,” he says. “They take the residue that is on the surface and move it underground where they eat it, digest it, and leave a wonderful source
of nutrients. At the same time, they leave channels that allow rainfall to permeate the soil and a path for roots in the subsequent crop to follow deep into the soil profile.”
Bensend continues to look for innovations that can push this conservation minded approach. He helped found a local group of like-minded growers, called Farmers of Barron County Watersheds, that helps promote use of such things as cover crops.
“Our early harvested crops, such as corn silage, or soybeans harvested up to early October, leave us an opportunity to put cereal crops on those acres,” Bensend says. Cereal rye, winter wheat, or barley are used to establish a green, growing crop to protect the soil until planting time.
The farmer-led watershed group has been demonstrating the use of cover crops, and researching different seed mixes, methods of seeding, and timing.
“It is important to see how these technologies can work, and the net impact they can have,” Bensend adds.
He’s also tracking the productivity of land over the long haul. “Thirty years ago, when I embarked on this strategy of no-till, I was a young person who had very little equity, and I had to farm in a different way than most farmers,” Bensend says. “We soon began to realize some real changes were going on in our soils. As we began to work on these disadvantaged soils, over time we watched the productive level of those acres begin to rise.”
About 20 years ago, he saw that yields were running very close to parity with neighbors who were using conventional tillage.
“About 10 years ago, we began to see that our productive capacity was surpassing traditional cropping systems,” he says. “We are very confident that we are on the right track. It has taken a long time, but we like where we are headed.”
Staying on that path means a continued commitment to conservation — more than 15 acres of waterways were built and seeded on rented land in 2016 — while continuing to seek ways to farm in harmony with these rolling, scenic hills.
“We often reach out to our nonfarm friends to explain that profitability and conservation are not mutually exclusive,” Bensend says. “It is possible to be conservation minded and to do everything right from a soil quality and soil health standpoint without forcing yourself to operate at a loss.”
In fact, Bensend is convinced that the strong conservation mindset can actually boost economic sustainability of a farm. “Those activities that are strongly entrenched in good soil quality building efforts will yield better economic
returns,” he insists. “Over time, we have watched it happen, seeing our yields improve at a faster rate than our contemporaries who farm conventionally. There is no doubt conservation and profit can co-exist.”