Transcript for Our Farms, Our Future Podcast episode 015 - The Heart of Our Farms featuring Heather Darby and Julia Gaskin

Heather Darby: That’s the exciting part about soil, I think, is that we all have to gather around it. because it’s what we have. It is the only thing that you have that you can really manage that will really protect you. I've said this before: you can have all the money in the world, you can have all the fertilizer, you can get the best herbicide, and you can get the best price for your crop, but if you have a seven-inch rain storm, hail storm, it doesn’t matter how much you’ve put into it, it’s gone. The only thing that’s going to be there to protect you is that soil.

Mallory Daily: This is Our Farms, Our Future. A podcast by SARE, the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program. Today on the show: SOIL, the great equalizer.

Heather Darby: Soil’s an area people that can connect around because, you know. It’s the heart of our farms. It doesn’t matter how you choose to farm, if you don’t treat it right, you’re gonna be in trouble.

Mallory Daily: That's Heather Darby, a lifelong dairy farmer in Vermont and a soil specialist with University of Vermont Extension. She'll be speaking with Julia Gaskin, a soil scientist with University of Georgia and Georgia State SARE Coordinator.

Julia Gaskin: So I'm a soil scientist by training and have always been really passionate about what we used to call soil quality and now he calls soil health. So have worked with a wide variety of projects to try to help both specialty crop farmers and row crop farmers to help improve their soil, which I think is the basis of sustainability.

Mallory Daily: For these guests, promoting soil health serves as a common language amidst the diversity and the divisiveness of agriculture in the United States. To them soil biology is endlessly fascinating and they try to help other scientists and producers understand its importance by sharing their own enthusiasm.

Heather Darby: I think about when I first met soil, which seems kind of weird to say, like my first date. But when I went to college and I took these classes in soil biology, I mean it really blew my mind. It really was amazing. And I'm sure you know Dr. Alex Stone from Oregon State University, she was a post-doctorate researcher at the University of Wisconsin when I was there. And she was a guest speaker in my soil biology class. And she started talking about, you know, microbes eating other microbes and this sort of underground battle of the titans, you know, to protect the plants that were growing. And I just thought, that is like the coolest thing I have ever heard, you know, what are we--wow! And it was just, it was like that moment in time that I just realized there was just something completely amazing about soil that I knew and actually everybody else didn't really know a whole lot of about. And I mean that was sort of my, like the beginning of my like love affair with soil and it's just sort of continued from there.

Julia Gaskin: Right. No, I could not agree with you more. And I wish--of course, when I came through, soil biology wasn't that big a deal. And I really think that is the frontier of us being able to figure out a more resilient, sustainable system. But I don't know, I got fascinated with soils. I worked as a technician actually for the Forest Service at the Coweeta Hydrologic Lab and it was an acid rain project and I was more interested in the chemistry of how rain changed as it moved through the forest canopy and then the humus layer and then the different layers of the soil. And that was my entry into, wow, this is a fascinating system. And it just changes everything. So when I bet back to graduate school, I dived in.

Heather Darby: Yeah, it was like you couldn't get enough of it. You know, it's fascinating to me, you know, as I started to learn more about soil and I became an idealistic student, like many are, these goals about how are we going to change the world or what we're going to do. I remember this plan that I had when I first got my job in extension, when I was still a student thinking I'm going to go home. I was going home, you know, to the place that I grew up in, the farmers that I knew when I was a little girl, you know, and just I want, I'm going to teach these farmers about soil health. And I still remember when--and I've been in extension now 15 or so years--I remember the first presentation I gave at the winter road show, you know, when you're traveling in the state and I remember [thinking], so I'm going to talk about soil health. It's gonna blow everybody's mind. Just like it blew my mind and I just remember talking and just this room full of farmers staring at me like deer in headlights. They had no idea what I was talking about. And then when I was over, there wasn't a single question. You know, the room was silent and I thought, I just want to crawl under the table. This was not what I wanted my first blow out to be. No. I thought for sure everybody would just be like, wow! You know, just like I was. But, um, that did not happen. I remember thinking, I've got to figure out some other thing to talk about, you know? Because they're not interested in this. And that was 2003.

Julia Gaskin: Yeah. And I had similar experience at a big conservation tillage, well, we call it Conservation Production Systems School because we wanted them to think about not just reducing tillage but using winter cover crops so that they could build their soil quality. And I remember giving a presentation on soil quality and all the benefits and how it could help you with infiltration and moisture storage and you know, all of that. And actually an extension specialist got up right behind me and said, "Oh, that's really funny. I thought we were growing cotton instead of soil organic matter." So it was like, oh, great. But we've made big strides since then, and I even see now that some of these specialists that were not very interested in this, they're seeing it from a totally different perspective. Like from weed suppression, they're saying, "We're losing our tools, we don't have new chemistries. We've got to use cover crops to help us manage our weeds." So I do think there has slowly been a shift.

Heather Darby: I completely agree. And I feel like it's because soil health has gone mainstream. You know, when you see the soil health articles in the John Deere Furrow, you know that times are a-changing. It's like, what?!

Julia Gaskin: Right. And, and you know, I work a lot with specialty crop producers, too, and you even see it and the fruit growers, vegetable grower news or BioControl, or, I mean, there's definitely been a bit of a shift. I think it's slower still out there on the farm. But, I was thinking about what Rick Gibson said yesterday, about working with Native Americans--were you in that?

Heather Darby: I wasn't, but--

Julia Gaskin: So it was the SARE coordinators meeting and he was talking about working with Native Americans and how we're supposed to show impacts in a couple of years and how traditional those societies are and how it almost takes generations there to make the change. I don't think that's true of just Native Americas.

Heather Darby: I was saying that at my son, he's five. And before I had children, I remember people saying, you know, these young people are our future. And I kind of felt that. Well, no, duh. They're going to grow up and they're going to be adults and yeah, they're going to be the future. But you know, we were on the farm one day and you know, I was trying to do something and Flint was playing and I said, "Come on, we got to into the house. It's time for dinner." He was three and we have this golf cart on the farm and he climbed on the golf cart and he goes, "Mom, I had so much fun playing in the soil." And you know, I just wanted to cry a little bit. Did he just say soil? And it wasn't, I had so much fun playing in the dirt, but I had so much fun playing in the soil. You know, just it dawned on me: oh right, those people were right. If my son is three years old and he knows the difference between soil and dirt, then you know, things are going to be a lot different 15-years from now, 20-years from now because our kids, they know what cover cropping is. They know what soil is. It's just what you do.

Julia Gaskin: And you're starting to see that with the younger ages and folks come in, they don't think it's weird. They think, well, this is what we're supposed to do. I understand their challenges. But, see, that was the thing the first time around. So this whole soil health thing has made me feel kind of old because I was around for the soil quality thing, and then it kind of dropped off the map for a while and you just kept plugging along and then now all of a sudden it's made this big resurgence. But the cool thing is the first time around it was like when you ran into a problem, like for our row crop guys, it's really hard for them to get stuff planted timely because they're harvesting cotton into November, maybe even December. And if they're planting that late, they're just not getting the benefit. And so people would just sort of throw up their hands then and say, "Oh, it won't work."

Heather Darby: "I can't do it."

Julia Gaskin: "We can't do it." But now it does feel like there's more of an attitude of: okay, this is a problem. How do we solve it? And that attitude shift, I think, will make the difference. And I don't know about Vermont, but in Georgia, I can tell when I drive into a county where the county agent believes that this stuff will work and make a difference, because you can see the cover crops.

Heather Darby: A sea of green.

Julia Gaskin: So I think maybe, yeah, maybe after however many, 20 years almost. So we're starting to see this breakthrough. Gosh, I hope so.

Heather Darby: I think so. And, you know, I was just thinking of something when you were talking. If you think it won't work, it won't. And that's the shift that I see at least in Vermont, too, is, well, we can't cover crop here. We can't use no-till here. We can't, we can't, we can't. And maybe at one point we couldn't, you know, because there are challenges. There's real challenges, there's perceived challenges, and they're all important. And if you don't overcome both of them, you know, the perceived ones and the real ones, you're not going anywhere else. And I think, you know, the attitude at least in Vermont has greatly changed that. People want to do it, they think it'll work and they just keep trying to make it work, which is different than before when you would convince one person to do it. You know, cover cropping as an example. They'd have a horrible experience and they wouldn't do it ever again. It's like 20 years later, like you said, people still say, well, I remember when I did that once and it didn't work.

Julia Gaskin: And we do have better equipment and everything. And it's not a silver bullet.

Heather Darby: No, no.

Julia Gaskin: And, and neither is the, neither is the no tillage.

Heather Darby: Right.

Julia Gaskin: You know, tell you the one thing I really wish we could change. And for years I've had to sort of straddle between the organic producers and the committed no-till people and they don't want to even talk to each other. And it's still that way. And we somehow have to stop that because yes, reducing tillage, no-till is great, but there's going to be situations where that doesn't work. And so if you demonize these people over here, I don't know. I mean, I'll talk to the no tillers and go, "Look, don't give me this junk about soil biology. The organic people been preaching this for years. You guys are the late comers here."

Heather Darby: Right.

Julia Gaskin: And on the organic side. "Guys, you aren't just automatically sustainable because you're organic. You've got a lot to learn from these other folks." I wish I felt like there was more ways to bridge that gap and I think it's sort of emblematic of our society that everybody wants one way. The silver bullet. That's the way it should be. And it just can't possibly be there with all the different things we grow and soils and climate and everything.

Heather Darby: Yeah, we have a lot of work to do. I mean, there's no doubt. The thing is that we have momentum right now and that's the exciting piece, right?

Julia Gaskin: True.

Heather Darby: That the farmers are engaged. Ir used to be for sure that it's like the only the organic farmers were engaged. They were the only ones that would turn out for the meeting on soil biology. And you kind of felt like you were preaching to the choir and now you do something like that and you've got, you know, everybody there. Soil is an area that people can connect around because it's the heart of our farms and it doesn't matter how you choose to farm. If you don't treat it right, you going to be in trouble and you're not going to be sustainable or resilient. I mean it doesn't matter, again, if you're organic, you're conventional, your no-till, your plough-till, you're whatever. If you mistreat your soil, that is going to come back to haunt you. And any farmer can do that. Every farmer can do the best and sometimes we see the worst.

Julia Gaskin: That's right.

Heather Darby: And that's the exciting part about soil, I think, is that we all have to gather around it because it's what we have. It is the only thing that you have that you can really manage that will protect you. And I've said this before, it's like you can have all the money in the world, you can have all the fertilizer, you can have all the herbicide, you can get the best price for your crop. But you know, if you have a seven-inch rain storm, hail storm, it doesn't matter how much you've put into it. It's gone. And the only thing that's going to be there to protect you is that soil.

Julia Gaskin: That's actually a really good way to put it. I really like that.

Heather Darby: And you know, the other thing I feel like is that, you're right, I think it's sort of this way or that way. We actually haven't done much to say what's in the middle. You know, we've done a lot of research trying to get all parties to no-till and I come from a place where it's cold and we have heavy soils and there are times where, you know, tillage may be necessary. Should we demonize it? I don't think so. You know, I think that there is middle ground, but we've spent a lot of time researching and promoting: don't till it's the worst thing you can do. Which then pits one type of farmer against another. And we don't know what the middle ground is. And there's so many new tillage tools out there that are vertical-till that are low-till. And you know, just from a university perspective, we have, we don't generally have the resources to like bring in the latest, greatest equipment to be able to say, well this is pretty darn close to no-tilling. If you looked at the carbon footprint and you looked at all these pieces, this may be actually the way we should be going, folks.

Julia Gaskin: Or rotational-till. Like, with the organic guys, you know, I've been told that people who farm in South Dakota, that we can do strict no-till, organic in Georgia. Hmm, that's interesting. 'Cause we have weeds that grow 12 months a year and insect pests 12 months. So it's just a different thing. So I think we need to look at tillage as a strategic tool and reducing that as much as possible.

Heather Darby: I agree with you. And the organic folks, they want to figure out how to do less. They are committed to that.

Julia Gaskin: Yes, they do. In fact, I'm seeing that more and more at like SSAWG, which is our big meeting. A lot of organic growers looking for ways to reduce tillage. But, you know, if you're a vegetable grower, you can't no-till mixed lettuce. You have to have a prepared seed bed for that, you know, so maybe you cover crop and you transplant something, cucumbers or tomatoes or something that you could transplant later on to, to sort of try to balance. You know, we've got managing cover crops profitably and we've got all this like maybe 20,000 feet view. That's really, really great information. But now we got to dial that in, down to varieties for specific uses. And, wow.

Heather Darby: So these tillage radishes, you know, they're like a legendary beast now. I mean it's this thing that--what farmer don't you talk to that asks you, "Have you seen these tillage radishes? Can we grow those here and how? When should I plant them and what seeding rate should I use?" You know, those are the questions you dreamed about ever being asked. And all you do is look at him like, I don't know. We don't know yet.

Julia Gaskin: But here's the other thing. I mean for you all, they were great because they winter kill. Well, for my guys--so like last spring I get this call from a farmer in south Georgia who planted one of these mixes that NRCS wanted, has the big daikon tillage radish thing in there. Well, you don't plant cotton 'til May. This thing didn't winter kill. He had roots that were five inches in diameter. Oh, no, how am I going to plant into this? You know, they were freaking out. And I mean, if you do kill them 10 days before planning they will get soft enough. But yeah, they're intimidating for us. So, I don't know. They may not have a place for us except for in front of corn.

Heather Darby: Yeah. Well, and it's, I mean that's where we're at. How do we answer these questions as fast as possible? And farmers are figuring it out and then, you know, as usually normal then the researchers come in--

Julia Gaskin: --and try to try to see if it's right or not.

Heather Darby: Yeah. Why did that happen? Gosh, it sucks being there. You know, I'd rather be on the front, sort of helping as farmers make it to that place instead of behind, you know, trying to catch up. Yeah. But I guess you've got both.

Julia Gaskin: But you've got both and you've got those guys that are pushing the envelope and then we can come fill in and sort of encourage more of the middle- to late-adopters.

Heather Darby: We're still trying to get some people to cover crop, especially in very challenging areas.

Julia Gaskin: We're later. I think we only have about 10 percent still. yeah.

Heather Darby: We don't have a lot of crops, you know, in Vermont. And we're pretty limited in that way. But for the row crops, we're about a third of the acreage cover cropped.

Julia Gaskin: That's good. We do, we have everything. I mean people don't think about it cause we've got cotton, corn, peanuts, we still grow some tobacco, vegetables. A lot of interest with grazing systems, lot of interest with folks wanting to fence in fields and then stocker cattle over the winter. So over-seed like with a cover crop and do some grazing but still get enough residue to kinda, you know, at least keep the erosion and you have some living root in the system. So it's all over the map.

Heather Darby: Well and I think--this kind of gets back to something you said earlier, too--that once farmers see this direct, often financial benefit to a practice, things get adopted a lot quicker than the feel-good stuff. And that's not to say that farmers don't do a lot of feel-good stuff, but you know, people are trying to survive. Thrive, let's say. I hate saying farmers are trying to survive, which unfortunately is a true statement in most cases. But you know, I feel like for us, once you were talking about grazing cover crops, you know, once we started introducing: you could harvest these cover crops for feed for your dairy cattle immediately? Not immediately, but you know, so just there was more. More cover crops. People started saying, "Oh I can harvest these. Short on feed last year, I'm going to harvest my cover crop." And then not only did that make more acres go into cover crops, but it also made the acres that were put into cover crops better cover crops because they knew going to get something. And so it was more than just down the seed out there in November, as you mentioned. It became: I gotta get my corn in earlier or I gotta plant shorter season corn so I can get my corn off and then I can get my cover crop planted by this date so that it tillers and I've got this nice forage stand the next year. It becomes more a part of management just what we do and this is how we do it. It's just like planning to plant the corn or the cotton every year. You're creating it as part of your system and that's you know when you're so happy.

Mallory Daily: That’s it for this week’s soil enthusiasts. You were listening to Heather Darby, a dairy farmer and University of Vermont extension agent. And Julia Gaskin, with University of Georgia Extension. You can learn more about their projects through the links in our show notes. This show was produced in The Pod at KOPN 89.5 FM in Columbia, MO. Tim Pilcher is our producer, and I’m your host Mallory Daily. You can subscribe to our show on your favorite podcast platform, like iTunes or Stitcher. We’re releasing two new shows each month. Our Farms, Our Future is presented by SARE - the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program. SARE invests in groundbreaking research and education projects in sustainable agriculture. Grants are available to producers, scientists, educators, graduate students and others in the agricultural community. Learn more at SARE is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this recording are those of the participants and do not necessarily reflect the view of the USDA or SARE.Thanks for listening! We'll catch you next time.