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Bringing Back the Land

By Amelia Hines, Public Affairs Specialist

It was a tough job, but Morrow County farmer Ray Seals was just the man to take on the challenge.

“This farm, prior to Ray coming here, was used and abused. A lot of erosion on a lot of these hill tops. There was virtually no top soil left,” Nathan Rice said. For the past three years Rice, a District Conservationist with the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), worked with Ray Seals to improve land on his farm.

Before Rice and NRCS entered the picture, Ray Seals had already spent two years working diligently to improve his land.  “When you take away from the soil, it takes a long time with great practices to get it back. But, you have to start somewhere,” Seals explained.

Farmer and DC check the quality of the soil

“When I plowed this land in 2008, there weren’t any worms. Now there are worms,” Ray Seals said.

Through patience and pure determination, he slowly turned what many called barren land into land with healthy, productive, and rich soil where he now grows several acres of soybeans.

“When I plowed this land in 2008, there weren’t any worms. There wasn’t a bird in the sky worried about this little piece of ground. Now, there are worms,” Seals said. 

He credits part of his success to using cover crops on his farm. Seals rotates his fields with rye as a cover crop and research shows that cover crops can help prevent soil erosion, and build beneficial organic matter in fields.

Seals said that this year the cover crops have been crucial to keeping his soil intact because of record rainfall. “The rye suppressed the weeds. Plus, it stopped a lot of the erosion from the heavy rains.”

In addition to soil erosion in his fields, Seals faced another problem that he didn’t know how to fix. After heavy rains, an overflowing stream prevented him from getting to one of his fields.  A mud hole that grew up to 40 feet wide was a hazard for the environment and equipment.

Seals researched options for the issue and learned that NRCS and the Delaware Soil and Water Conservation District offered programs that might help.  Ed Miller, an employee of the Delaware Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD), visited the farm to take a look at Seals’ stream problem.

Miller works with farmers to improve water quality through a special project created three years ago by the NRCS called the Mississippi River Basin Initiative (MRBI).  A cooperative agreement between the Delaware SWCD and NRCS leverages the resources of both organizations to help farmers improve the quality of the water in the Mississippi River and its’ tributaries.

Seals qualified for assistance under the initiative since the stream on his farm flows into one of those tributaries.  The MRBI funds conservation on working farmland in the initiative area using NRCS’ Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Miller suggested that EQIP could help Seals use conservation practices to improve his natural resource problems that would also end up protecting the Mississippi River Basin waters. 

Farmer Ray Seals stands on stream crossing

Funds from EQIP helped Ray Seals pay for
constructing a stream crossing.

District Conservationist Nathan Rice helped Seals through the application process for EQIP.  Once NRCS approved the application, Seals signed an EQIP contract and began installing the selected conservation practices on his land. Funds from EQIP helped Seals pay for constructing a stream crossing, a type of infrastructure that prevents over flooding, soil erosion, and equipment damage.

“It makes all the difference in the world. Just the access to the back field without having to worry about breaking your equipment as you went down through the mud or upsetting the grain cart,” Seals explained.

Seals placed grass waterways in other sections of his farm through EQIP to help rain water drain out of fields while limiting soil erosion and nutrient run-off. Rice also helped Seals with an improved cover crop and residue management plan that further prevents nutrient run-off.  Each conservation practice impacts the bigger picture; protecting water quality for Seals and others in the Upper Big Walnut Creek Watershed.

Thousands of residents in the Columbus metropolitan area get their drinking water from sources in the Upper Big Walnut Creek Watershed, so minimizing nutrient run-off from farms matters not only to people downstream in the Mississippi River, but right here in Ohio too.  On the other hand, that same nutrient-laden run-off can travel 1,500 miles to the Gulf of Mexico via the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, contributing to the Gulf’s dead zone.

Nathan Rice summed it up by saying, “Ray’s adopted the suite of practices that we at NRCS are promoting to improve soil health. The crop rotation, residue management, cover crops, nutrient management; all those things together benefit his farm as well as the watershed at large.”

In Seals’ opinion, his relationship with NRCS and the Delaware SWCD has given him a great advantage because of the technical expertise offered.  “The main thing we’ve gotten out of it is the education part; what to do and how to do it. That’s been our biggest asset.”