Bankhead family partners with NRCS, uses innovative techniques to improve conservation
Farming in Texas comes with its own set of challenges — hailstorms, windstorms, drought and floods. The fourth-generation farmer from Roscoe, Texas, Randall Bankhead has seen and endured it all.
Story, photos compiled by Wade Day, Public Affairs Specialist, San Angelo, TX
Farming in Texas comes with its own set of challenges — hailstorms, windstorms, drought and floods.
The fourth-generation farmer from Roscoe, Texas, Randall Bankhead has seen and endured it all.
Based on experience, he is convinced of one truth.
“Things have got to change,” Randall said.
Referring specifically to conventional farming techniques, he admits there is a strong tendency of doing things the same way, getting the same results.
“We thought we had a mechanical problem and that everything could be fixed with plowing and waterways,” Bankhead admits. “What we didn’t realize is that we had an agronomical problem. We were skipping out on the biology of the soil and that it was alive and living. We didn’t even consider that.”
He’s now determined to be part of the solution when it comes to solving problems in the agricultural industry — even if that means breaking with generations of tradition.
Still, Bankhead is optimistic about the future due to new technology, an ever-growing family and a partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
Farming – Family Tradition and Change
Randall’s family first came to the rolling plains of Texas from Alabama in 1906.
Like his great grandfather, grandfather and father before him, the Bankheads continue to work the land, albeit somewhat differently than their predecessors.
Today’s operation consists of nearly 5,000 acres of land, much of it under irrigation. All their land is no-till and has a diverse cropping system.
Married for nearly 40 years, Randall, along with his wife Mary, have two children, Scott and Laura. Laura married Chase Schuchard and they have two young sons, Troy and Ben.
As their children grew up and left the farm for college and other careers, Randall and Mary weren’t sure who they would leave their operation and land to. Randall described it as a prayer answered when Laura and Chase decided to move back.
It began with Chase interning for Randall and “getting the farming bug” said Laura.
“It’s such a cool legacy because we have so many generations of farmers that have been doing this,” Laura said, then smiled. “It’s something you can be proud of.”
Laura and Chase play important roles in the farming operation. Laura focuses on economics and policy, while Chase oversees technology and pursues new opportunities for the operation.
Randall described the partnership as a fantastic fit. Chase had no preconceived notions of what farming should be. He was open to new practices during a time when Randall was well on his way to becoming more innovative.
Chase, too, recognized the importance of his father-in-law’s drive toward innovation.
“What I really appreciate about Randall is that he loves to farm and his love for farming is just not sitting in a tractor — but studying and learning and pushing the envelope.”
Chase eventually understood the importance of soil health from a business perspective as well.
“We’ve got to find ways to make our crops more resilient to drought and stresses,” Chase said. “Just being conventional tillage and not having soil health as part of your operation, you really have diminishing returns. We’ve (got to) do what we can to make more yield and more quality to stay in business.”
Randall has seen the rewards of his family’s hard work.
“I’m very excited about the future of farming,” Randall said. “Having the next generation come in here, it has put the fun back in farming and made it more enjoyable than ever.”
The Watershed Years
The Bankheads didn’t become the operation they are now without experiencing turmoil.
To Mary, those major turning points can be dubbed as watershed years.
“There are just a lot of years that were watershed years where the farming changed completely,” Mary recalled. “The equipment was not very advanced and it was hard to keep things running.”
As the farm grew, they began to invest in new equipment and technology they hoped would benefit the operation.
“We were traditional conventional farmers trying to be good stewards of the land,” said Randall. “We did contour terracing, contour farming, and bedded up our land. We thought the more you plowed the better the land would get. That was something I was taught from my dad — that tillage is good, which is totally wrong. But it’s what we thought at the time.”
The couple recalled 1997 as being one of those pivotal years.
The spring looked promising. Ample rains fell and the year was off to a good start. In early June though, a sandstorm made its way through the area. It destroyed their crops, leaving only black stems. The crops they had put months of labor, money, and time into were gone in a matter of hours.
The event would change his thoughts on conventional farming and tillage.
He started to see how generations of tillage had damaged the soil and contributed to the massive sandstorms, just like the one that destroyed their cotton.
Randall realized the cotton never stood a chance.
“The definition of insanity is when you keep doing the same thing expecting different results,” said Randall.
A new way of thinking
Randall’s focus is now on what he calls his four soil health principles: reducing soil disturbance, keeping a cover on the soil at all times, having a living root in the soil at all times and ensuring diversity within plantings.
Management is now implemented with these principles in mind.
They routinely soil test, check for cover on top of the ground, then dig deeper to check for soil structure. These changes in management have paid dividends in their soil health, which has directly benefitted their crop production.
“To me, healthy soil is when you turn the soil upside down you see anywhere from six to seven to ten worms in a shovel full,” said Randall. “As a landowner, I want to farm it in a way that I’m protecting my number one asset. My biggest asset is the land and I want to keep it here.”
The operation has embraced new technology as well.
The Bankheads have incorporated advancements such as variable rate fertilizer application and satellite imagery. These technologies, in combination, allow them to not only monitor their crops but apply product in a very efficient and targeted manner. Combine this with routine soil sampling and their crops are getting what they need, when they need it, based on the best information available.
Cover crops are another technique that has proven to be invaluable.
Checking off three of his four soil health principles — cover, living root and biodiversity — the Bankhead’s realized cover crops needed to be part of the equation. Many of their cover crop seeding mixtures may contain as many as 18 different varieties of seed.
Weather is also part of any agriculture operation.
Given the fact that it has a tendency of being unforgiving and unpredictable, weather plays a large role. For farmers like the Bankheads, precipitation is vitally important.
The precipitation for this area is about 20 inches a year, so moisture is a limiting factor in crop production. Cover conserves moisture and cools the soil. Soil with good structure from reduced disturbance has a higher moisture holding capacity. Both pay dividends in crop production.
With a goal to be effective and efficient with the precipitation received, these soil health principles make this possible.
“You can’t continue to do what you’ve always done,” said Laura. “It’s not sustainable to plow and continue to do those kinds of practices. There’s lots of instances to focus on soil health or to improve the resources you have been given so that you can continue generation after generation after generation.”
The soil health principals and innovative farming techniques have allowed the Bankheads to make strides in their business. They continue to look for more ways to improve the health of their land.
“What the agricultural industry really needs is people who are willing to be problem solvers,” Mary said. “Willing to identify a problem and work to solve it rather than just point out things that are wrong.”
Partnerships that Pay Off
The partnerships that were developed have played an intricate role in the Bankhead’s willingness and ability to try new technologies. They recognize the strong relationship they have with NRCS and District Conservationist Mandi Ligon in Sweetwater, Texas.
“When you try something new it’s great to have a partner in there with you,” Randall said. “It’s a good way to get a farmer to try new programs and new farming practices.”
Randall has remained very active with the NRCS and the Nolan County Soil and Water Conservation Board.
Ligon said that NRCS and the Bankheads have worked together to install many conservation practices including terraces, waterways, contour farming and irrigation projects.
Ligon shared that having the opportunity to work with Randall and his family has proved to be exciting.
“Working with Randall has taught NRCS just how well cover crops do improve the soil,” said Ligon. “He is educating me — who is supposed to be the expert on it.”
It’s no surprise either that Randall has become a mentor to new NRCS employees or that the Bankheads are involved with community outreach. This has included having local 3rd through 6th graders on their land to learn about agriculture.
Working toward a better future
Randall likes where the farming community is headed, even if change is slow.
He believes that things are going to continue to move toward more sustainable farming and that innovation will continue to occur. These changes will happen, in part, to the practices he and other farmers are starting to implement.
“What I’d like people to know,” Randall said, “is that we’re moving in the right direction.”
A strong sense of responsibility and stewardship are also driving factors for Randall.
“Because it’s just the right thing to do,” said Randall. “I want to leave the land in better shape than I found it. Healthy soils create healthy food which creates healthy people.”
Considering the current family and the next generations to come, the sky is the limit for what is possible on the Bankhead Family Farm.
“The Bankheads are a great example of stewardship,” said Ligon. “They aren’t scared of change; they have embraced it. The partnership that has formed between them and the NRCS is special.”