Farming With Conservation In Mind
John Dassow, a conservation farmer in Livingston County, finds success in farming while preserving natural resources. John's wife Megan is active in soil conservation as well, working as a Soil Conservation Technician with NRCS. Together they make a great team working towards conservation.
These days it can be tough for young farmers to find reasonably-priced land or even an operational farming niche that fits and is profitable. It helps if you’re a 6th generation son with a knack for wildlife. Happily, that’s just the starting point for John Dassow of east central Illinois.
Passed down from his Grandpa, Harold Dassow, John and his father Duane now operate several farms in Livingston County, Illinois. John has slowly started to take on more of the farm work. Dassow Farms works their -1,300 acres of row crops and 450 acres of CRP, plus John does custom work and wildlife consulting for surrounding landowners. Most of Dassow Farms’ landlords are ‘absentee” landowners—but those vary in proximity, geography, and their level of involvement on the farm.
What’s trending in the area where Ford and Livingston Counties come together is a positive trend. It’s just the sort of thing John’s family is happy to see. It’s called Conservation Farming. Where did John learn conservation? From his father and his father’s father. And to top that off, he married Megan who just happened to work for USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service as a Soil Conservation Technician. Both John and Megan have a passion for the land and wildlife, obtained college degrees in similar areas, and both are working hard to make positive changes in their part of the planet.
“Some of the soils here South of Chatsworth aren’t the greatest,” John explains. “These farms are marginal, including a lot of poorly drained and eroded soils, some even classified as Highly Erodible Land. But if you do everything right, you can still have it all.”
When John says, “Have it all,” he doesn’t mean the highest yields, the cleanest fields, or large, square, easy-to-farm tracts. What he means is that you can grow row crops on the most productive ground, protect sloping areas, improve soil health with no-till and cover crops, and take hilly or routinely wet spots out of production, giving those acres back to nature as native prairies and wetlands.
Dassow Farms currently works a small amount of family ground and farms for five other landlords in the area. What John is most known for is his ability to help others better manage their acres to improve profitability while benefitting wildlife, pollinators, and the environment alike. He has a particular passion for restoring prairies and wetlands, bringing back native plant species so they can support beneficial insects, birds, mammals, and other wildlife that depend upon them.
And thanks to his Dad’s farm history and Megan’s day job, John is quite familiar with the conservation tools available and the various practices he’ll need, like crop rotations, contour farming, filter strips, grassed waterways, windbreaks, and prairie plantings. He also knows how NRCS and FSA programs work. He offers this information with confidence, giving his landlords the guidance they need to accomplish their goals.
Dassow enrolled all the land he farms in Livingston and Ford Counties into NRCS’s Conservation Stewardship Program, or CSP. CSP pays financial assistance to plant new cover crop species and mixes and to use enhanced fertilizer efficiency products as well.
“I’m all about raising the highest yields. But if the returns are not there and we could try a different option that’s more profitable and more sustainable, that’s what I’m going to suggest,” John explains. So far, his landowners have been pleased with his guidance and the results. And if you were to drive around the area, you’d see healthy crops growing right alongside beautiful prairie landscapes, wetlands, and food plots.
The numerous acres of native prairie and wetlands have also restored the presence of quail, pheasant, wild turkeys, rabbits, fox, waterfowl, and deer.
Those thick, hilly acres exist peacefully right next to acres of high quality corn, soybeans, and wheat raised in a no-till environment. “I think this is how the Conservation Reserve Program was intended to be used,” Megan explains. “Take erodible, low productivity land out of production and cover it with deep-rooted vegetation that holds soil in place and provides high quality habitat. That’s precisely what we help operators and landowners do—the right thing.”
John and Duane regularly run soil tests to keep tabs on everyone’s fertility and organic matter content. Since Duane began using no-till back in the mid 1980’s, their soils have begun to heal and become more productive. In the mid 90’s Duane began experimenting with cover crops and now John is taking it to the next level by trying to implement cover crops across the whole farm. He’s already seen improvements in soil structure and infiltration rates.
John sees using both no-till/strip-till and cover crops as another opportunity--and another option--to offer his absentee landowners. If he shows them the savings, long-term benefits and ensures they can maintain and even increase yields, leading to higher returns, they’ll give it a try. “Trying something new for conservation isn’t uncommon for my family,” John says with a smile. “My Dad was doing all this stuff even before it was cool!”
A few years ago, John suggested one of his absentee landowners, Art Jablonski, consider installing a wetland in a low and poorly drained area that frequently flooded. Jablonski loved the idea and construction on the site was just completed in December 2017. He and Art went to view the new wetland and both were more than pleased with the six-acre site. “Art can hardly wait to see what wildlife and plants move in to the new real estate!” John says.
“Even on these not-so-great soils, I can farm the land, make a profit, protect the environment, improve water quality, and offer food and cover for a wide array of wildlife and pollinators,” John says. He feels lucky to have such great landowners who are willing to work with him to take some risks and do the right thing.
“I know we’re changing the look of the land here and I hope we are opening up people’s eyes by showing them conservation and farming can co-exist. The land looks great, the farms are profitable, and wildlife and pollinator populations are on the rise. We hope to keep these trends going strong,” adds John.
To learn how NRCS and FSA programs and assistance can address conservation issues on your land, contact your local USDA Service Center today. Or visit the Illinois NRCS Homepage.