Vermilion County farmer does things ‘different’ than neighbors
David and Amy Olson farm 1,800 acres in Vermilion and Iroquois Counties. Farming ground for absentee landowners accounts for one-third of those acres. Oldest son Justin is the only one staying in agriculture and he operates his own cow-calf herd of short-horned cattle. David custom farms 300 acres. Sound like a complex and diverse mix? Perhaps. But all these acres have one thing in common—they are in excellent hands. They are well managed. The soil on these acres is getting better—healthier—all the time.
The Olson farm began in 1908 with David’s great grandfather. His Grandfather served on the Vermilion County SWCD Board and built the county’s first terrace system in the 1940’s. That same terrace system is still doing its job today. “I guess the importance of conservation just runs in the family,” David says. “My Dad studied agriculture at the University of Illinois and I went to Danville Area Community College. Maybe it’s in our DNA.” Dave’s four older siblings left and found off-farm careers. That left Dave as the fourth generation owner, operator, and farm manager since he was a teenager. He’s worked and lived on the farm his entire life.
Soils on the farm are good, mainly Ashkum and Elliot. They contain enough clay that years of previous tillage built up a hard pan layer. Agricultural trends back in the 1970’s and 1980’s were a lot different than today. Farmers were encouraged to till the soil deep, to farm right up to fence rows and ditches, and to load fields up with inputs, fertilizers, and chemicals to improve yields.
“That’s what they taught us in school. That’s what the research and agribusiness recommended back then. So that’s what we did,” David explains. But the tide turned in the mid 80’s when the Farm Bill renewed interest on conservation and started compliance, particularly on sloping or highly erodible land. Olson tried new no-till techniques and had good luck with soybeans. Corn proved more challenging.
David believed in the benefits of reduced tillage ever since. He dove into the essence of no-till, focusing his efforts and learning to manage his soil’s air-to-water ratio. But no-till didn’t always work like he needed it to. He wasn’t able to truly ‘open up’ the soil and get air and water and nutrients down to the full depth of the soil without using tillage. He needed something else. He needed another conservation tool.
Managing a Living Soil
“That’s when I learned about soil biology and microorganisms. I started using living roots to feed and wake up my soil. This wasn’t what they taught me in school. This was completely counter to everything we’d learned,” David says. For the Olson farm, this changed everything.
Over the years, Olson’s Century Farm added many conservation practices designed to protect soil and water: CRP hardwood trees, pollinator plantings, a 3-acre wetland restoration, and buffer strips. And once he was introduced to the benefits of growing cover crops to improve soil health, he was hooked.
“I had naturally used the ‘4 R’ techniques most of my life—right product, right amount, right place, right time. I had been doing that for 30 years because I always paid attention to those critical details. But cover crops added a whole new world of benefits to my corn-soybean-wheat operation,” David explains.
He had one 35-acre field that had poor, clayey soil. He struggled to farm it for years. The soil there was tough; yields were lousy. So he planted cover crops—annual rye, a few other species, and some radishes. He grew cover crops there for six years, learning along the way how to manage them, and how to get the exact benefit he wanted. He learned planting and termination tricks, and so much more.
David experimented with cereal and annual rye, pairing them up with oats and radishes in different ratios. He used every planting option available—drilling, aerial application, and a high-clearance seeder. He had successes and failures, learning more at every juncture.
According to David, “You’re not gonna hit a home run every single time, but we learn something with every play.” What he’s learned is that you need options and you have to be ready to adapt. “You might start out with Plan A, but you’d better have a Plan B and Plan C if conditions change,” Olson laughs. “And conditions are always changing.”
Don’t Go It Alone
Once Olson decided cover crops were in his future, he needed a way to cover extra costs—seed, application methods, and termination. No one else nearby was doing it, so where could he go for guidance, ideas, technical assistance?
Luckily, David farms in Vermilion County, where USDA and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) offered special funding to encourage farmers to install conservation practices that improve water quality. Since 2013 David’s watershed and six others in Illinois were eligible for the National Water Quality Initiative, which offered access to the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP. He submitted an application and was approved for funding. In addition to EQIP, David also uses the Conservation Stewardship Program, or CSP. CSP offers a payment to plant even more acres with a conservation cover crop system. He works with NRCS technical specialists, demonstrates methods and results, and learns something new every day.
According to Olson, government programs offer financial help to cover some of the up-front costs that come with using cover crops and other conservation practices. “For landowners and operators that need a little help, let NRCS payments pay those expenses for a few years while you learn all the ins and outs of how it works on your land. EQIP will help you get started and find your way with these new techniques. In the end, you’ll save you money and improve your farm and your soil,” Olson said.
What did David Olson achieve using EQIP and cover crops? Everything the literature and researchers promise: Better water infiltration, drought tolerance, reduced erosion, increased yields, a huge population of underground microorganisms who recycle nutrients, capture and hold onto Nitrogen, and generate their own nature-made pest control and organic matter factories.
Olson Lessons Learned
- Surface cover crop plant material disappears into the ground overnight, compliments of earthworms (Lots of them!).
- Farm fields readily absorb and accept heavy rainfalls that pond and flood the neighbor’s fields.
- Yield monitor readings on that terrible 35 acres field reveal his highest corn yield ever—209 bushels per acre!
- Hosted U of I water quality research that reveals how just three years of no-till and cover crops reduced nitrogen content in tile drainage water down to Working as a ProHarvest seed dealer, field test site, and advocate of the Soil Health Partnership in Illinois helped him learn more and spread the word.
- Experimenting with different cover crop species and mixes; conducting his own research to learn the best time and stage to inter-seed cover crops with no-till corn.
Because David changed his own soils, he wants others to learn what he learned. He hosts field days for local farmers, demonstrating how healthy soils are different and how to transform any farm, any operation, using old-fashioned techniques his great grandfather used so long ago.
Pass It On!
Olson hopes to educate other landowners and absentee owners and professional farm managers about the importance of offering tenants the chance to
secure three- to five-year lease agreements. “If you do, they can try cover crops and use them long enough to see improvements. The more effort you put into truly managing your soil biology, the better results you’ll get from cover crops,” Olson said.
Cover crops and soil health require a lot more work. It’s more to manage and more to learn. There are no cookie cutter strategies that work on every Illinois farm because every farm, every field, is unique. What it takes is a commitment to manage all the details, to scout your fields, and to take the work of specialized treatments and decision-making to the highest level. According to David, if you do that, if you learn to take care and feed your soil with the natural biology it yearns for, you will tap into a new dimension of farming that will change everything. The soil beneath our feet is truly a miraculous universe. Tend to that universe and you will reap untold benefits.
To learn how NRCS and EQIP can help you improve your soil and farming operation, contact your local NRCS team or visit the NRCS Illinois homepage.