Baxter: Maintaining soil health a generational duty
LAUREL, Del. — Maintaining soil health is a continual process, but for Jay Baxter, it’s more than year-to-year, it’s generational.
Baxter led off last week’s Sussex Conservation District’s soil health field day with a question to his fellow farmers: What’s your legacy?
Baxter, a fourth generation farmer in Georgetown, Del., and one of the district’s Soil Health Champions designated to promote the concept, talked about the changes he’s made on his farm that have made the soil more productive and stronger, noting repeatedly that the goal is maintaining the benefits long term and keeping soil health a part of management decisions.
For Baxter, the question of legacy carried extra weight as news of the death of his grandfather and renowned Sussex County farmer, James H. Baxter Jr. on Aug. 11 was widely known. (See Mr. Baxter’s obituary on page 13.)
“It’s an honor for me to stand up here and carry on that man’s name and his legacy,” Jay Baxter said, with two of his sons sitting nearby in the front row.
After no-tilling the land and planting different cover crop mixes for several years, Baxter said that he has more recently adopted the practice of “planting green,” sowing his cash crops into a standing cover crop which puts more nitrogen in the soil as the cover crop grows longer and builds a mulch layer on the soil surface while adding soil organic matter after it is terminated.
He said he used several mixes for different cropping systems but he’s been pleased planting into hairy vetch, a crop that many farmers have bristled at with concern over volunteer plants coming up in small grains in subsequent years.
Baxter said getting the right equipment on the planter to manage the vetch’s plant material has helped along with proper timing in planting the cash crop.
“These aren’t really a whoops,” he said of past mistakes. “They’re an educational thing for us.”
Baxter said he’s seen a lot of benefits come out of the practices from better water-holding capacity, to increased microbial action and nutrient cycling.
In his grain crops, the practices have helped him skip pre-emergent herbicide applications some years, following-up planting with an earlier post-emergent application for adequate weed control.
That saves time and input costs, Baxter said, adding emphasis on the time aspect.
While quantifying the benefits with hard numbers is still tough, Baxter said the “sky’s the limit” on what the land can gain from focusing on soil health.
“Let’s face it, this is no longer a crop we’re going to get government money for,” he said of using cover crops in general. “This is a crop we’re building our legacy on.”
Baxter has more recently ventured into no-till planting vegetables grown for processing.
“It really was passé, even a few years ago to do anything like this. It really is a big deal.”
Baxter closed his presentation asking the same questions again, What’s your legacy?
Standing knee-deep in a soil pit at Chip Baker’s H&V Farms which hosted the field day, Philip King, state soil scientist for NRCS Delaware showed farmers differences in soil structure and attributes of good soil health.
King said he makes a bet with farmers to test the healthfullness of their soil.
If they can push a marker flag into the soil until the flag part reaches the ground without the wire bending, he’ll buy them lunch.
He said he hasn’t had to pay up on the bet but said improving soil health is more and more on the minds of farmers, especially younger farmers who seem more willing to make management changes.
He said it can take four or five years to see noticeable results from adding new soil health practices.
“This is a long term process,” he said. “Soil health is a commitment. It’s a cultural change.”
King said while improving soil health can allow you to get on some fields earlier to plant or harvest, resist the urge if conditions aren’t right or you could lose some of the benefit you’ve established.
When considering a trip across the field, King told the famers to ask themselves: What is the purpose? What do I gain, what do I lose?
“It’s challenging you to think through the problem,” he said. “If you’re looking, you’re thinking.”
King said using farmers like Baxter, who have done a lot of their own experimenting, as a resource and even going beyond Delaware for information is necessary because there’s still a lot to learn about improving soil health in commercial production.
“The problem with soil health is it’s not a totally known science,” King said. “We don’t have it all figured out.”
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