For Ritter, soil health is always in style
HARBESON, Del. — Brad Ritter is a fourth-generation farmer who farmed with his father and uncles since high school. While he continues some of the practices he learned early on, Brad has an open mind when it comes to new technology and new techniques, particularly those recommended by the Sussex Conservation District and the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
For example, his farm has always had cover crops of some sort.
“For my grandfather, barley and clover were a given back when cover crops were not cool. I’ve used them, too,” Ritter said.
Cover crops help keep moisture in the soil, help control weeds and add organic matter.
“You can see the level of organic matter increasing. We are going in the right direction,” Ritter said. “It has been slow going because this is such sandy ground.”
Working with Sussex Conservation District and NRCS, he has experimented with different cover crops at different times of year, spread by different methods, to see what works best in his farm operation.
“I’ve used mixes containing ryegrass, but that just didn’t work for us. Rye is hard to kill. I’ve tried triticale. I’ve used canola (rapeseed), but not to harvest for oilseed.
“I tried hairy vetch in the spring where I wanted to plant limas in July. It didn’t work out so well on my farm.
A YouTube video titled “Seeding Hairy Vetch as a Spring Cover Crop,” produced by Delaware Soil Health Partnership followed Ritter’s progress.
“I burned it down chemically, which left organic matter in the field. I strip-tilled limas into that, but it just wasn’t a good stand to begin with.”
Ritter tried spring oats planted in the fall. He tried Daikon radish, also known as tillage or forage radish. Radish planted early gets really big, he said.
“The root goes as far as 2.5 feet down into the soil. It works well with strip-tilling. My trial radish cover crop worked so well that I include radish in many of my cover crop mixes. This spring I planted 15 acres of spring oats to save for cover crop use. We’re getting down to what we like and what works best for us.”
Sussex Conservation District “opened my eyes,” Ritter said. “They brought people from all around the country to talk to us and to share what works for them. It has been an eye-opener, going to conferences to talk one-on-one with farmers who are using different cover crops.
Two years ago, Ritter bought his own spreader for cover crops. “I wanted to get more involved with this practice,” he said.
Seven years ago, Ritter started strip-tilling through the advice of the Sussex Conservation District and NRCS. Strip tilling, he has found, uses less fertilizer, increases root penetration and increases yields, he added. He uses vertical tillage to lightly work the soil after a corn crop so he gets good seed-to-soil contact.
Ritter is adapting his vegetable acreage this year since J.G. Townsend Jr. and Company didn’t contract with Delmarva growers this year. He used to rotate corn, wheat and soybeans in that order, with a vegetable crop thrown in every third year. He had grown limas and peas and, under irrigation, green beans.
The University of Delaware has helped with irrigation management. Ritter said he can program water application and tie it in with rain amounts, soil type and maturity of the crop. Soil moisture monitors, which are themselves monitored by a company in Nebraska, let him know when a crop needs water.
“NRCS has been a tremendous help with nutrient management,” Ritter said. Some of the NRCS’s programs will cost-share some of the expenses of precision farming, such as GPS in the tractor to avoid overlap in planting or application of fertilizer.
With those programs, you can design a prescription for each farm, Ritter said. And with strip-till corn, you can use variable rates in fertilization and in spreading seed, too.
In the best of both worlds, Ritter said he would develop a great seedbed — a strip 10 to 12 inches wide in rows 30 inches apart. Then he wouldn’t till at all. With GPS technology, he can use the same strip, year in and year out, planting on the same line.
Ritter married in 1991 and his wife, Laura, gave birth to triplets in 1997. He has farmed on his own since 1999, having worked for Laura’s family in their trash collection business for about 10 years. “I liked working there, but the farm kept calling me back,” he said.
Ritter farms about 900 acres with the help of one of their sons, Adam. He said their other son Aaron is still deciding on a career choice. The third child, Amanda, is applying to veterinary medical schools with hopes of returning to Delaware to open an emergency veterinary facility.
They rent about 90 percent of the land, and it seems everything has a “for sale” sign on it, Ritter said.
“When a field is sold, it’s gone. You just adapt. It seems the best farm ground grows the best houses. That’s just the way it is here.”
The Ritter family farm is 5 miles from the beach “as the crow flies,” he added.
The Ritters work closely with Cape Henlopen FFA, allowing students to work with and show their goats at the Delaware State Fair and other goat shows. They recently hosted a goat show on their farm so parents could see the progress their children have made. Most goat shows are three hours or more away, Laura explained.
The mother-daughter goat business, “Goat Joy,” began as an FFA animal science project for Amanda. She and her mother would like to produce goat cheese. For now, they offer goat yoga, goat socials and other special events.
The Ritters also own a self-storage facility in Lewes, appropriately named AAA Storage after their triplets.
In June, the Delaware Advisory Council on Career and Technical Education presented The Outstanding Service Award to Laura and Brad Ritter “in recognition of outstanding contributions to career and technical education and the citizens of this state.”
Ritter also is a National Association of Conservation Districts’ Soil Health Champion and is part of a national network of more than 240 Soil Health Champions nationwide.