Profile: Jim Bender
Jim Bender, Weeping Water, Nebraska
When it comes to meeting the challenges of operating a large farm without chemical pesticides, Nebraska farmer Jim Bender wrote the book - literally. He has worked 650 acres of mixed grains and legumes, and about 100 head of cattle, in the eastern part of the state since 1975. After eliminating his use of chemicals almost 15 years ago, he published a 160-page book on the subject.
Future Harvest: Pesticide-free Farming is part cautionary tale, detailing Bender's early, nearly disastrous attempt to shift from chemical dependence. The bulk of the book, however, focuses on how to do the job right.
Today, Bender is a thorough practitioner of intensive crop rotation, cover cropping, soil building, and topsoil retention. He aims to return his soil and waterways to prime condition and make natural weed and pest control an easier prospect with each year.
'The objectives are to alternate sod-based crops with row crops, weed- suppressing crops with those without that characteristic, crops susceptible to specific insects with those that are not, and soil enhancing crops with those that do not enhance soils,' says Bender, who grows milo, wheat, soybeans, turnips, alfalfa and clover hay, and corn and sorghum for feed.
A typical rotation begins with a soil-building crop such as a clover or alfalfa. He follows with either corn or sorghum, and then with soybeans. (He also might precede the corn with soybeans depending on soil test results). The beans are followed by wheat or oats, then he plants a cover of turnips, clover hay, or more alfalfa.
He also allows his cattle to forage after harvest, knowing they will help in at least two respects: The manure they leave behind adds to soil fertility, and their consumption of seeded stalks missed during harvest means fewer opportunities for this year's crop to germinate as next year's weeds.
The various aspects of Bender's organic regimen appear to work together seamlessly. One crop that helps the soil gives way to another that will help suppress weeds in the following crop. The rotations help disrupt the life cycles of pests and weeds, making it difficult for them to establish. Cattle cycle through his fields, further displacing potential weed infestations. Finally, his cover crops, along with his discontinued use of pesticides, help attract beneficial insects that further reduce the risk of pest outbreaks.
The farm does not run on autopilot, however. Bender's cattle follow a rotational grazing pattern that calls for intensive management as well as good strong fences, and lots of them. Fences require maintenance, but the work pays off.
'Livestock is the linchpin that makes everything else fall into place on my farm,' he says. 'I can't imagine a large organic operation without animals.'
In addition to their foraging though harvested fields, his cattle reduce the need to mow his grassed waterways. They also serve as an economic buffer. In lean times, Bender can sell more beef than normal. If a cash crop is ruined by infestation, he can always replant with a forage crop that not only gets used for feed, but also acts to repel the pest.
Labor remains a big part of the operation. Even with the suppressive qualities frequent rotations bring, Bender is on a tractor often, dragging a spring tine harrow, a rotary hoe, or running a shovel cultivator to keep weeds in check.
It's an intricate and maybe even intimidating system in the sheer number of factors and options Bender considers. But he doesn't apologize for the level of detail. Instead, Bender hopes his book will convince others that it's possible to operate a large Midwestern grain and cattle farm without using chemical inputs.
'You have to really want to do it; that's what ultimately makes it successful.' Bender says. 'And I hope more and more farmers will reach that point, because the way they're farming now just isn't working.'