|By LINDA McGURK
DANA, Ind. — When corn and soybean grower Kelly Cheesewright and his father, John, decided to experiment with no-till agriculture in 1984, fellow farmers stopped short of calling them crazy.
They had challenged the notion that the quality of a farm can be gauged by how clean the fields look at the end of the year, and how well the roadside is mowed. As a result they were deemed poor farmers, destined to go broke. But Kelly Cheesewright persevered, and today his 1,800-acre farm is 100 percent no-till.
“What it’s done is incredible,” he said. “We’ve taken some of the least productive land and turned the trend around. It takes a few years, but it can be done.”
Cheesewright, a fifth-generation farmer labeled a “cutting-edge conservationist” by some, has benefited financially from his foresight in more than one way.
Three years ago, he learned about the Conservation Security Program (CSP), a USDA program introduced in the 2002 Farm Bill, which rewards farmers for good stewardship of the land. According to Don Donovan, a USDA District Conservationist in Rockville, Ind., CSP was the first program of its kind.
“In the past, programs were set up to fix problems,” he said. “Farmers who already did things right came out on the short end. CSP’s primary purpose is to reward farmers for making the right decisions in the past.”
CSP is a voluntary conservation program, and to be eligible farmers must have addressed soil and water quality issues in the past, on at least part of their land. The farms also must be located in watersheds selected by the state.
Payments vary depending on the level of excellence in resource management in the past, and the program offers incentives for those who are willing to implement new conservation measures.
“It all comes around full circle,” said Cheesewright. “When we started going to meetings about CSP three years ago, other farmers told me ‘well, this should fit you pretty well,’ and it did. Now I’m reaping the rewards of the program.”
In addition to his no-till farming, Cheesewright is experimenting with pest and nutrient management practices, like split nitrogen application, and fertilizes 100 acres with turkey manure. He has begun planting cover crops, and has reinvested some of his CSP money in subsurface drainage tiles.
He finished putting the tiles in earlier this year and now has them in place in all fields owned by him and his father.
The tiles will help remove excess water and increase productivity in the no-till fields, which normally take longer to warm up than traditionally farmed land.
Cheesewright is not a typical CSP contract holder, since he had already implemented most of the practices rewarded by the program and only had to turn approximately 20 acres of cropland into wildlife habitats to reach the highest payment level.
Now, strips of switchgrass and milo intersperse the cornfields on his farm near Dana, Ind., providing food and safe surroundings for quails, pheasants and woodcocks. “I always wanted to have those, but it’s been hard to justify (economically),” said Cheesewright.
Although Cheesewright is about to cap out his CSP contract, and nobody knows for sure whether the 2007 Farm Bill will provide any additional funding for CSP or similar programs, he thinks his no-till practices and conservation initiatives will continue to improve his bottom line even if the government incentives should dry up.
“I spend less on labor, overhead and fuel, and have more time to manage things that matter, like marketing, instead of sitting on a tractor seat,” he said.
This farm news was published in the Oct. 25, 2006 issue of Farm World, serving Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee.