Profile: Robert Boettcher
Robert Boettcher, Big Sandy, Montana
|Growing rye between vineyard rows suppresses weeds - both by smothering and by producing allelopathic substances that inhibit weed germination - and attracts beneficial insects such as lady beetles to this vineyard in Monterey County, Calif. |
Photo by Chuck Ingels.
Robert Boettcher has never been averse to change. Two decades ago, he looked around and saw cracks forming in Chouteau County's wall-to-wall grain production that to him spelled opportunity.
They don't call that part of north-central Montana the Golden Triangle for nothing: One acre of dryland grain meets the next - and so on as far as the Big Sky reaches.
'So much of this area is farmed in a monoculture,' says Boettcher, who has 1,000 acres near Big Sandy. 'Farmers have created their own problems.'
Boettcher and his son, Earl, now rotate their grains with sunflowers, lentils and such green-manure crops as alfalfa, lentils and peas. Organic since 1992, he uses no chemical pesticides or fertilizers - and estimates he loses less than 1 percent of his crops to pests.
Count insect pests? He doesn't have enough troublesome critters to bother tallying them up. Weed problems? 'It's almost frustrating: We have very few weeds and the neighbors still won't admit we're doing something right.'
Crop rotation 'sort of sets everything off balance,' says Boettcher of the pests he rarely sees. His problems with wheat stem sawfly - a 'nasty' pest that began flaring in the Big Sandy area about a half-dozen years ago - have been 'insignificant.'
During the first year of a three-year study of Boettcher's farm, Montana State University scientists found just half the number of damaging insects in his diverse rotation with sunflowers and lentils than in a more typical wheat-barley-summer fallow rotation.
'The Boettchers use more complex rotations, with more crops that aren't hosts,' says Andy Lenssen, associate research professor in MSU-Bozeman's Department of Entomology.
Dryland grain crops growing under Montana's big skies are less prone to insect pests and foliar diseases than those produced in more humid environments, Lenssen says. 'In a lot of ways, it's an ideal place to be an organic producer of grains.'
But the dryness that bakes out foliar disease organisms also protects insect pests from the fungi, bacteria and viruses that might otherwise curtail their numbers. So the effects of Montana's climate are mixed.
The Boettchers try to crop three-quarters of their ground. On the other fourth - green manure grown on what used to be summer fallow - they kill the legume with a chisel plow and leave as much residue as possible to blanket the soil. In the winter, they leave their grain stubble as high as they can to catch snow.
Dense plantings during the growing season not only protect soils but also thwart weeds. Boettcher plants his lentils and his grains - barley, buckwheat, durums, soft whites and hard reds - with 6- to 7-inch spacings. 'You get a ground cover really quick, and if there are some weeds there, the ground cover shades them out,' he says.
Generally, though, weeds do not flourish there. Boettcher works the ground once before he plants, cultivates the resulting weed flushes, then drills.
That is one of the most striking differences between the Boettchers' farm and most other Golden Triangle operations, says Lenssen. 'In conventional systems, it's very unusual to go without herbicides - and they are one of the more expensive inputs in this region.'
With significantly lower production costs, Boettcher says his operation is consistently more profitable than conventional farms. His yields are often within 80 to 90 percent of theirs, but the prices he gets for his organic crops can be up to three times higher.
Ecologically based pest management has not brought dramatic surprises, just steady, satisfying improvement. 'Some significant changes have happened in the soil,' he says. 'Its texture has changed completely.'
Where the farm used to experience water erosion, his new soil-building practices have virtually eliminated storm-caused ditches.
'Maybe we're doing some things right,' Boettcher says. 'We're on track for trying to build up the soil and get it to a more healthy condition. We don't have many worries about pests and our plants are healthier, too.'