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News Release

Howard County Farmer Never Stops Learning

Aaron Hird

Farmer with a sign about soil health in the a no tilled corn field.


Never Stop Learning

By Kerry Hoffschneider


ST. PAUL, Neb. – Joe Sack grew up on the family farm that his dad and his dad’s brothers started nearly 50 years ago.  During his formative years, Sack learned the value of hard work and developed an eye for how to make things better and more efficient.  Years later, Sack would find himself back on the land that shaped his youth, with more information and a passionate quest for soil health – a passion that his children are finding alongside their dad too. 


“As a family farm, we had our set jobs that we needed to do growing up,” Sack said, looking back. “My dad was always in charge of the hogs.  We had a farrow to finish operation and we were in charge of the alfalfa crop.  Throughout my younger years and in high school, I will admit, I did not enjoy the hogs much; but, I did learn about hard work.  After I graduated high school in 1996, I stayed on the farm for about a year to a year-and-a-half.  But, we were going through tough times with our hog contracts and I thought it was a good chance for me to go and get an education.”


Sack headed to Central Community College in Hastings where he pursued a degree in Machine, Tool and Die.  He took with him his work ethic, attending college from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and then working from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. at Nebraska Aluminum Casting, “Soon after I started working, they put me on a machine and I changed the process of how they had been doing it and was able to produce twice the amount of parts in the same amount of time.  The supervisor asked how I got so many parts done, and I simply said I changed the process.  The owner of the company came to me later that day and offered to pay for all my schooling and books, no strings attached.  It was pretty unbelievable, and I appreciate their generosity to this day.”


Sack’s knack for being able to see how things can be made better, have proven beneficial to him to this day.  Even though he was away from the family farm, he never stopped learning about how to make things better in agriculture too.  The consummate learner, Sack did a ton of research, thinking someday the opportunity to return home may arise.  Once he graduated college, Sack moved back home to the St. Paul area with his wife Tansy and he worked in the tool and die area. 


Then, the couple received a phone call from Sack’s dad, “He told us my oldest brother was getting out of farming and he wondered if I wanted to come back.  Before I came back in 2008, I sat down with my dad, two uncles and cousins.  I had been doing my research and should especially credit Gabe Brown for being one of the main people I was studying.  I printed off an article and gave it to them at the meeting and said, ‘I believe these practices would make your farm more efficient and sustainable . . . These are some of my ideas.  I do not expect you to change everything right away, but if you want me to be an employee that is a future partner, you need to know some of my beliefs.’  I did not want to join the operation if they were not willing to hear out some of my ideas.”


Sack has faced an uphill curve trying to convince his family and neighbors who are used to heavy tillage and grow very little to no cover crops.  But, he refused to stop learning, “About six years ago, I went to the Four States Irrigation Council in Fort Collins, Colo.  There was a gentleman there who was a young farmer like me and was presenting many of the things I had grown to believe.  I asked him, ‘How did you convince your dad to let you do these things?’  He said, ‘I did not.  I bought my own piece of land so I could show them on my quarter how it would work.  Then dad allowed me to do it on his land.’”


Sack took that advice, came home and he and his wife bought a quarter too, “The first year out, I planted rye and then Kraig Beck from NRCS said I would be a good candidate for the soil health study.  With his help, we were able to participate and now this is a Soil Health Demonstration Field.  I am excited to see what the on-farm research shows us.  It is conducted with side-by-side comparisons, so there is no way to cheat the results.  My ultimate goal is to try and improve the soil – everything that is going on below the ground.”


“I want to break up the hard pan with a cover crop and its root system,” he went on.  “The other main goal is water infiltration, holding water so it is available for the crop to use when Mother Nature does not give us the moisture we need.  We are very fortunate to have a good irrigation supply in Central Nebraska, but I think we need to learn how to be more efficient with our water because we are not going to gain more.  In fact, we are going to have less in the future.” 


Sack explained the basis of his farming operation and where he wants to go in the future, “On our farm we do two years of corn and one year of soybeans.  I am planting soybeans now, then harvesting and planting the rye crop right into that.  Then I harvest the rye and go in there with a high-grazing cover crop that we will be grazed throughout the summer.  The plans are to have some of my own cattle.  With low commodity prices, I think there are quite a few producers looking at livestock again.  And, livestock can benefit the soil even more.”


The biggest reason Sack is pursuing practices that rebuild soil health, is the future, “I want to leave this farm in much better condition for my children.”

The Sack children are catching on too.  The oldest daughter just graduated and was able to watch her father begin to make changes.  The Sack’s two younger boys are 14 and 12, “Kids’ minds are amazing when it comes to how they pick up on things.  They come out with me a lot and say they want to be farmers.  They will ask questions about what they are seeing, like, ‘Dad, why would they disc that up?’  I don’t have an answer for them.  The kids will say, ‘All they are doing is making that dirt blow away and drying up the soil.’  So, they may not fully understand everything about soil health, but they can see it.  At first, they made fun of me a little bit when I talked about the soil being alive.  Now they will dig up the soil to find earthworms and are asking if the soil is alive themselves.”


Sack is looking forward to continuing to learn from being involved with the Nebraska NRCS Soil Health Initiative  and he wants to share what he is learning with others, “If we do not take care of the soil and continue to do the negative practices we are doing, the soil will no longer hold the water and the water resource will be less and less.  Being part of the research definitely takes work, but that is how you learn.  There are a lot of brilliant minds out there to absorb knowledge from.  It’s important to listen to others and have an open mind.”