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Center Creates Real World Conservation

Posted on 2013-2-15EST7:27PM

Tom Van Wagner spent almost his entire career as a district conservationist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in Lenawee County. He wouldn’t have had it any other way.

"People have asked me, ‘Why do you want to be a district conservationist all your life?’ Because this is where all the action is,"replied Van Wagner.

Since 1981 Van Wagner led the USDA effort to promote conservation on private lands, primarily agricultural land, in Lenawee County. He retired in January.

Part of promoting conservation to farmers is showing that the conservation practices you are promoting are economically viable. During his career Van Wagner has had a valuable ally in this effort, Blaine Baker who operates Bakerlads Farm with his brother Kim.

The Bakers are fifth-generation Lenawee County farmers who operate a dairy operation and also farm about 1,600 acres of corn, soybeans and alfalfa. Bakerlads farm has had a conservation plan since the Lenawee Conservation district was first formed in the 1940s, said Blaine Baker. The farm is MAEAP verified in all three systems, livestock, cropping and farmstead. Most recently, Bakerlads received the Ecology Leadership Award last November from Michigan Farm Bureau at its annual meeting in Grand Rapids.

Van Wagner visited Bakerlads Farm his first summer with NRCS. They had just installed an earthen waste storage facility. In the 1980s no-till was beginning to gain traction in Lenawee County. No-till has both conservation and economic benefits for farmers. Leaving crop residue on fields greatly reduces soil erosion and not working the land between harvest and planting saves fuel and equipment costs as well as time. Bakerlads were not among the first to adopt no-till, but since 1990 the Bakers have gone exclusively no-till for corn and soybeans. However, no-till began losing popularity, especially on land planted to corn.

The decline of no-till led partners, including the Lenawee Conservation District, NRCS and farmers like Baker, to form the Lenawee County Center for Excellence. The center uses test plots to demonstrate different farming techniques and evaluates their conservation and productivity performance. Each year the center holds a field day with educational sessions at Bakerlads Farm and Raymond and Stutzman Farms.

"The Center for Excellence isn’t just a place, it’s a platform for disseminating information," said Van Wagner.

The Center has tested a variety of conservation and innovative agricultural practices including different tillage practices. Cover crops have caught the interest of farmers recently, much like no-till once did. NRCS has long provided financial assistance for planting cover crops because they reduce soil erosion. Like no-till, using cover crops will have to be sustainable. They must show a financial return for farmers to continue using them, and for them to become widely adopted, said Van Wagner.

Baker believes cover crops will increase yields by improving soil quality. It can take a long time for cover crops to show an impact on yields which is where the Center for Excellence comes in. The Center will use test plots at Bakerlads to measure the impact of cover crops on the organisms living in the soil and the nutrients they make available for crops. Farmed ground has probably lost half its organic matter, said Baker.

"I know we can increase yields if we could get all of our soil to the condition of what it was before farming," said Baker.

Time and trials will show what impact cover crops have on soil health and yields. The Center for Excellence and its partners will let us know how it comes out.

See the original article here.