Roadtrip: Building a soil health legacy for the land (Keeping the Farm)
(Editor’s note: Dastina Wallace is a State Public Affairs and Outreach Specialist with Delaware NRCS.)
Summer on the Delmarva is all about the great outdoors!
Over the next three weeks, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service will take you on a virtual road trip along the coast to share stories of farmers who are outstanding stewards of the land and the Chesapeake Bay.
Our first stop is in Delaware where you’ll meet Chip Baker whose soil health legacy didn’t end when he retired from farming.
After spending more than 40 years farming, Baker, a Delaware corn and soybean grower, recently decided to retire.
Still, he remains a passionate landowner that wants to make sure his land and soil continue to stay healthy and productive.
Fortunately, his new tenant farmer, family friend Blaine Hitchens, will ensure Chip’s legacy for soil health continues on the land.
Chip’s journey to becoming a soil health champion progressed over the years through his reading, research, and simply learning from his mistakes.
When Chip started farming in 1971, he practiced conventional tillage — unaware that his heavy disking and moldboard plowing was disrupting the soil structure, leaving it susceptible to erosion.
“We didn’t realize what he had in the ground,” Baker said. “We didn’t have the science then to know what we were doing; if we had we wouldn’t have done it.”
Baker transitioned his operation to no-till in 1992 to reduce costs and build soil. “No-till was great, but we recognized that no-till will only get you so far.”
A decade ago, Baker said he heard a presentation by a soil health specialist with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service about how cover crops could take his soils to the next level. Always conscious of his bottom line, Chip knew he did not have control over the price of corn or soybeans, so he started with what he could control—his input costs. “I learned that to save money, you had to build the soil.”
He worked with NRCS soil conservationist Bobby Gorski for technical and financial assistance for his cover crop mixes through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.
Baker “changed his mixes yearly, depending on his rotation for that growing season, in order to minimize his inputs using naturally available nutrients instead,” Gorski said. “His choice in mixes ranged from two to three or more species to address weed control, compaction, and nitrogen fixation. The mixes also build carbon in the soil faster.”
Baker loves his partnership with his new farm operator, Hitchens.
After spending so many years committed to building his soil and taking it to the next level, he is confident it is in good hands.
Baker says that Blaine is now looking at more innovative ways to build and store carbon in the soil.
“He’s just gone beyond what I can even imagine,” he said
Like Chip, Blaine has seen the benefits of healthier soil, saying, “I benefit because there is less soil erosion, the soil holds more moisture, and I’m saving money.”
“And now I’m going to take this foundation, keep stacking my blocks, and keep building it as long as God lets me do it,” concluded Blaine.
Contact a local USDA Service Center to speak with a conservation planner on ways NRCS technical and financial assistance can help you address natural resource challenges on your operation. To find your office, visit www.nrcs.usda.gov/contact and search the map by state.
Next week, we’ll head to Talbot County, Md., for an oyster restoration story with a waterfront view.