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Poplar Man a Leader in Soil Conservation

Darryl Crowley Darryl Crowley
Poplar, Montana
11,000 acres of spring wheat, durum wheat, lentils, peas, canola, and garbanzo beans
Planting: all no-till
Covers: cocktail mix that includes canola, radishes, turnips, millet, corn, hairy vetch, and small grains

Lemmon dal in India, sopa de lentejas in Spain, and soup aux lentilles in Morocco are three dishes that have one thing in common: their main ingredient is lentils. If you look hard enough, lentils in each of these dishes could be traced to Darryl Crowley's farm in Poplar, Mont. Crowley is the man that grows the lentils—and the spring wheat, peas, durum, canola, and garbanzo beans. He has leased his land from the Fort Peck Tribe for more than 36 years, and has pioneered no-till and conservation cropping in the area.

A third generation farmer, Crowley knew that he needed to take an approach different from the wheat and chemical-fallow rotation typically used by farmers in the area. Working with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Crowley developed a comprehensive plan to increase his crop yields, market his crop internationally, decrease his expenses, and improve his soil health.

Some years, he grows peas and wheat, some years garbanzo beans, some years lentils. His cropland is planted using minimal chemicals and a no-till system. "The first 10 years we did this, everyone thought we were silly," says Crowley, when asked about his neighbors' reactions to his continuous cropping. Now, almost 30 years later, most of his neighbors have switched over to a similar system.

According to the Northern Great Plains Research Laboratory, a USDA Agricultural Research Service facility, a dry peas-wheat rotation in North Dakota would average a 10 percent increase in wheat yield. That number, however, does not calculate the revenue from the new crop grown on previously uncropped land, which will always be an increase from the zero profit made on chem-fallow acres.

Crowley came up with a creative solution to marketing the alternative crop he began growing in 1995; he put in on the international market. About 80 percent of lentil and garbanzo bean crops, which were not traditionally grown in northeastern Montana, were exported for sale. In 1995, the only place the Crowley farm could send their lentil and garbanzo bean crop was Canada. Now, local grain elevators take their crop, transport it to the coast, and ship it overseas. It is likely that international dishes will have originated in eastern Montana soil.

While Darryl Crowley profits from his cropping system, he has also managed to decrease his expenses. The no-till system, along with precision application methods for applying herbicides and fertilizers which greatly increases efficiency, has decreased his trips over the field. "We went from using between 15,000 and 20,000 gallons of fuel to half that," he says. The farm also raises cattle, which consume some of the crops grown. Crowley points out that "Everyone with livestock benefits twice." The soil is held down, and the cattle receive extra grazing on land that they could not graze previously.

Darryl has noticed a dramatic change in the soil. “People with the dust storms are the people who conventionally till,” he says. He notices less water runoff, less dust, and that he no longer has to fix the ridges caused by water erosion. Standing on his cropland, he points out that the soil is a darker, healthier color. Aggregates, clods of dirt that are indicators of soil health, form easily. By growing a diverse range of crops and applying a no-till system, Crowley has made the soils more productive while decreasing his farming expenses.

In this photo, Darryl Crowley examines the depth of crop residue on his farm. Crop residue on Darryl Crowley's farm near Poplar, MT. Crowley practices conservation tillage and crop residue management. July 2012. Close-up photo of yellow pea roots in hand. Yellow pea roots with nitrogen-fixing nodules.
This is a close-up photo of Darry Crowley's yellow peas. In 2012, Crowley grew yellow peas shown above and winter wheat. This is a photo of Darryl Crowley's 2012 winter wheat crop. Winter wheat crop, 2012.