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Focus on soil health drives innovation, moisture preservation for Oregon farmer

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“I think as long as we keep focused on doing the right thing for the soil, for the land, then it will all come out in the end.”  -- David Brewer

 

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Without irrigation, it’s hard to imagine growing a cash crop in an environment that receives less than 12 inches of precipitation annually. Welcome to the world of grain farmers in central and eastern Oregon.

David Brewer is one of those farmers. But rather than looking to the sky for help, he’s looking to the soil -- improving its health in an effort to retain and preserve every drop of precipitation that happens to fall on his farm.

Mr. Brewer is a fifth-generation farmer who manages the Emerson Dell Farm, which was founded in 1883, and now includes more than 2,000 acres of cropland and 800 acres of pasture -- just southeast of The Dalles, Oregon.

Conservation inspiration Dakota-style

He says his family has always had a progressive conservation ethic and were early adopters of innovative conservation practices, but when he returned from a cover crop and soil health trip to the Dakotas in the 1990’s, some of his fellow conservation-minded dry land farmers were skeptical.

“They teased us about it, but it really was an encouragement and inspiration,” he says.

Mr. Brewer says that despite operating in different precipitation zones and cropping systems, the lessons he learned in the Dakotas were all focused on feeding the soil and letting the soil take care of his crops. “I think if it works for them it ought to work here as well. It may look different but that same focus on soil health ought to work for us.”

“We’ve already seen by thinking outside the box a little bit and putting our crops in different orders, including putting some diversity in our crop rotation, we are raising better crops, bigger crops,” he says.

Mr. Brewer’s enthusiasm and optimism notwithstanding, establishing cover crops after harvesting a cash crop -- and after receiving all but an inch or two of precipitation for the growing year -- is about as challenging as any agronomic problem a farmer can face.

Moisture rules

The need to capture and preserve moisture was one of the leading drivers behind the widespread adoption of a key conservation practice in his area, direct-seeding, despite the fact that many farmers didn’t believe direct seeding would work there.

Direct seeding is a low-tillage practice in which seeds are planted directly into an uncultivated field. The process allows residue from the previous crop to remain intact over the winter and fallow period, which helps retain additional moisture and improves soil health.

“I think there is more incentive almost to do direct-seeding in a low rainfall environment because you just don’t have the water to give away and certainly in this case we don’t have the soil to give away,” he says. “I think in terms of low rainfall there is just as much to gain from a productivity standpoint by keeping that soil undisturbed and the residue on top of the soil.”

Moreover, Mr. Brewer believes in the power of innovation and tenacity. As a recipient of an NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG), he is exploring what crop rotations work best in his challenging environment.

“If you think it will work you will figure out how to make it work, if you don’t think it will work it probably won’t work for you. Like everything else, attitude is everything,” he says.

It’s why he’s intent on discovering a soil health management system that will work in his area.

Doing the right thing for the soil

“I know it’s real easy to say it won’t work here,” he says. “I have harped on the research scientist here in the Northwest to try different things and when they tell me it can’t be done it just aggravates me. Somebody has got to try it,” he says.

Mr. Brewer says the challenge is to do testing on a scale that doesn’t put the farmer at risk. “I certainly don’t want to be the guy that doesn’t give the sixth generation the opportunity.”

He also believes that a big part of the solution is in adopting a long-term, rather than year-to-year management approach.

“I think as long as we keep focused on doing the right thing for the soil, for the land, then it will all come out in the end,” Mr. Brewer says. “I guess there’s a bit of faith there, but we have had a number of points where we have had to take a leap of faith -- and it has worked for us.”

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NRCS Soil Conservationist Garrett Duyck (left), and David Brewer examine a soil sample on the Emerson Dell farm near The Dalles, Oregon

 


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