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What to learn about conventional corn/soy ag in order to improve it?

 
Posts: 69
Location: Eastern Great Lakes lowlands, zone 4/5
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TL;DR: Given the opportunity to fine-tune management of conventional corn/soy production, but with little background in agriculture, where does one start?

My extended family lives on a farm and rents their field to a local farmer who does corn/soy rotations. As of ~5yrs ago, I live within ~30 min of them and am looking to start a permaculture homestead and small farm in the area. As I take small steps for that big personal project, I'm looking at this conventional field and am wondering if I can do any good there. (I probably wouldn't move there full-time though.) I'm already visiting that farm more as I'm making use of small parts of the land for forest farming and tree nursery space. My family rents the field out at a pretty small price per acre - something I could pay with an off-farm job easily, if I was so inclined - which isn't good for them but it at least sets the bar pretty low for alternative farming styles to be feasible there.

I haven't met the farmer they rent to yet but the farmer's family and mine have known each other for generations. He's well educated and his family has some organic farming enterprises but his thing is just corn/soy I think. My hope is I could talk to the current farmer about my interest in ag and to share NRCS-supported techniques I'm interested in, with the goal that he'd put some of them to trial on my family's field. He farms 20ac there, which is a small portion of the hundreds or few thousand acres he manages in the area. I'm very interested in agroforestry but even basic things like no till, cover crops, and multi-cropping would be great to see. I recall he's planted white clover as a cover crop when the field would've otherwise been fallow, and my family that lives there says he's talked about doing minimal till but I can see from the field it gets tilled (I think with disks pulled by a tractor). They tell me he does use 'modest amounts' of herbicides and chemical fertilizers.

Eventually, the dream is that this field would produce staple crops with trees integrated in. My family who lives there says they'd love to see that (they're into homesteading but don't have the capacity/room for risk to get into farming.) I imagine the corn & soy grown there now could probably be grown at the same time (multi-cropping rotations) interspersed with rows of useful trees (nut/timber trees, biomass like hazelnut and willow, wind breaks). I figure one step at a time and if it's going well, we could build up to that dream.

Plan B...or E is that I take over management of the field someday, and that's something my family who owns the land is interested in. This would be at least a couple years down the road, and I don't think I'll ever live on-site. But if I'm in the area (~20-45min drive) and the field can be managed commercially from someone mostly off-site, why not be me (in the family and with more care about the land's history and future)? I figure I could basically keep doing the business model that's working for him, hire help as needed, and fine-tune it to be a healthier agroecosystem. This fits my own personal plans too as I hope to setup a conservation farm elsewhere in the area that I'd live on and hopefully produce some staple crops and healthy ecosystems simultaneously. Well that brings me to the main point of this thread.

I don't know much about agronomy. I also understand that this farmer's 'success' on this 20ac may not be something easily transferred, as it probably depends on subsidies and economies of scale from him managing hundreds of acres in the area. I'm a forestry scientist and a rapidly-improving gardener, but that gives me very little to go on in terms of >1 acre commercial agriculture. To improve my chances, where should I begin focusing my efforts? What key processes or concepts should I dig into?

I've started learning about planting spacing and timing for corn/soy and machinery used, but there's a lot to it and that doesn't even get into questions like "where do I get seed from?" and "who do I go to to make something useful of a field full of mature plants?" Though 20 acres is relatively small for conventional ag, it is still big enough where I think I'd need to tap into the use of machinary and big ag markets/systems to keep the field 'afloat' while steering it in a better direction.
 
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Location: Central NY, Eastern Edge of Oneida Co. ,Town of Trenton
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I would recommend grabbing a plate of cookies and chatting them up. Most of the farmers I've spoken with are happy to talk about what their doing if someone is actually interested and they have even a moment of spare time. If you hit it off you might be able to ride along when they till/plant in the spring(it can be a super high stress time if the weather isn't cooperating and your three weeks late planting).

I'd also try to avoid going into the relationship trying to change what their doing (this sounds like dating advice ) first learn what it is they are actually doing and why; if they are highly educated then they are probably managing that field in a specific way for some specific reasons, not all of which are immediately obvious. After some time you'll have gotten enough background to be able to look at the field from the farmer's point of view as well as the landowner's. If you get to know them before hand there is a good chance that you could pay them to plant/harvest the crops, perhaps they could even help you sell them.

Hmm, maybe avoid talking about putting trees in the middle of their corn field at first.... personally I did not get a happy response to that one ( it only takes 1 machine to kill 1/4 million trees/it only takes 1 tree to kill a $1/4 million machine)
Maybe instead talk about planting sugar maples on the field edges

Conservation agriculture is a middle ground between Conventional Ag and Permaculture, there is a chance that he or another neighbour already does some of these things. Cornell University also has a very extensive agriculture out reach program, much of it applicable to your growing area.
 
R Spencer
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Location: Eastern Great Lakes lowlands, zone 4/5
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Thanks William! That sounds like good advice. Not dating, but definitely hoping to build a mutually beneficial relationship. I'll try to setup a meeting with the farmer this winter to share my interest in ag and learn more about what he's doing, how and why.

Interesting point about a tree in the corn field, never heard that saying before. But true indeed! I'll aim for simpler conservation ag to begin with, before trying to turn a conventional corn field into full-blown restoration agriculture.
 
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R Spencer wrote:My hope is I could talk to the current farmer about my interest in ag and to share NRCS-supported techniques I'm interested in, with the goal that he'd put some of them to trial on my family's field. He farms 20ac there, which is a small portion of the hundreds or few thousand acres he manages in the area. I'm very interested in agroforestry but even basic things like no till, cover crops, and multi-cropping would be great to see. I recall he's planted white clover as a cover crop when the field would've otherwise been fallow, and my family that lives there says he's talked about doing minimal till but I can see from the field it gets tilled (I think with disks pulled by a tractor). They tell me he does use 'modest amounts' of herbicides and chemical fertilizers.




A person has to be wary with NRCS supported techniques because it is all subjective. Just because it is listed as approved by NRCS does not mean it is supported locally. The reason for that is, the NRCS-FSA is the only Federal Agency that is governed by an elected local board. That is because in the 1930's when the NRCS was created, they knew government officials walking up to farmers and saying you must do this, just was not going to work, so they created a system where there is local oversight. To wit; where I live...the Permicultural Capital of the World, our county has only about 50% buy in into the NRCS programs that are outside of conventional agriculture. But it is better than it was 12 years ago when only dairy farmers got any NRCS monies. Still, unless the local Conservationists champion a supported practice, it will not get funded. And if a person is not looking for a farm grant, and just hoping a NRCS practice will convince a farmer it is a good practice...hardly; like anything the government does, while well meaning, they are often so full of red tape there is not much of a favorable look upon the NRCS as a whole.

Something else that jumped out at me was mentioning that the farmer, "talked about doing minimal till, but I can see from the field it gets tilled". That is minimal-till, doing as little as possible to prepare the seed-bed. That requires pulling a disc harrow through the fields, but not tons of passes, or using a deep plow first. I think you are getting minimum till and no-tilll mixed up. Depending on soil conditions, non-till may or may not be possible, for instance where I live, it is not. That is a a good thing because while you would not think so, conventional no-till agriculture relies heavily on herbicides and pesticides to accomplish the task.

You should definately have a conversation with the farmer, but you are at a little bit of a disadvantage. With only twenty acres, if you mention taking over the land, then its possible that he just gives back the acreage. I know I would. Not that what you are doing is wrong, but just because I have been burned so many times putting money into a rented farm, only to lose the land just after doing so. At the very least, I would farm it putting just enough in it to get my crops to grow, but no more, not if I might lose it the next year. Now if the farmer does put money into the acreage, and you take it back, legally you must pay him for those improvements. The time frame for that varies depending on what the improvements was. So if it was lime or fertilizer, it is like 3 years, but if it is drainage tile, then it is something like 7 years, so it varies. It only makes sense, otherwise landowners would convince a farmer to make improvements, then take the ;and back the following year to have their own animals within the fence, or sell the property for more money at the farmers expense. That is why every state has this law, along with every providence in Canada.
 
R Spencer
Posts: 69
Location: Eastern Great Lakes lowlands, zone 4/5
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Good points Travis. I guess I can't tell from a surface look if it's minimal till or deeper tilling. The soil gets very dusty, that's for sure, but that might be normal without cover crops to retain moisture and soil structure.

Anyway, I guess an important way to frame the discussion is just as learning what he's doing. Especially since me taking over just 20 acres may not have the economies of scale to make it work without living on site. Better to let him keep doing his thing and learn more about how and why he does that, and over time building a relationship maybe some ideas can be trialed that I think would have mutual benefit, like more cover cropping to minimize presence of bare soil, and multicropping to increase diversity.
 
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