Hosted by two commercial row-crop farmers, Field Work is a podcast that provides space for frank, realistic discussions about the benefits and challenges of sustainable agriculture. Hosts Zach Johnson and Mitchell Hora explore the successes and challenges farmers experience as they adopt new practices, without greenwashing over the difficulties.
For our last episode of the season, we bring you our first live show ever, recorded at Farmfest in Morgan, Minnesota. Zach and Mitchell round out the season by bringing back some pals you heard from in earlier episodes, including their dads. Nathan Johnson and Brian Hora reflect on how their challenges with farming have been different from their sons’ and how the new generation is leading the charge of experimenting with sustainable practices. Field Work friend Jodi DeJong-Hughes, a University of Minnesota soil scientist, also returns to the show. (With her usual wit, she says she’s just glad she didn’t get killed off after episode 1). She and cover crop expert Cody Nelson of Soil RX deftly answer tough audience questions about how and why to adopt sustainable practices. Finally, Zach reveals that he and Mitchell have, in fact, achieved their goal of procuring a helicopter. Be sure to listen all the way through to find out what happens to it.
We know that corn and soybeans are the most economically viable crops we have on farms, at least in the Midwest, and that’s why they dominate the ag systems here. But there are efforts underway to add in a third crop. Third crops can be helpful for breaking up weed cycles, fixing more carbon and nitrogen in the soil, and possibly even increasing yields. Zach and Mitchell talk with farmer Darin Voigt along with Nick Jordan, a professor of agricultural ecology at the University of Minnesota, about how to integrate third crops and what the roadblocks may be to doing so.
Field Work host Zach Johnson has tried planting cover crops a few times on his heavy clay soils in Central Minnesota, but has had nothing but failures. In this episode, Ken Franzky, an agronomist with Centrol Crop Consulting, gives Zach some insights into how to try again. Ken tells Zach and Mitchell that his recs on aerial applications, herbicide rotations, and seed mixes vary a lot by geography. “I haven't seen a cover crop system that's a one size fits all approach,” he says.
Many farmers care about soil health, water quality, and about being good neighbors to each other and to people in nearby towns and cities. But sometimes it may feel like what farmers do individually doesn’t make much of a difference. In this episode, Zach and Mitchell talk about what it looks like when farmers start working together, as well as with others in their watersheds. Iowa farmer Ray Gaesser, Texas A&M research scientist Liz Haney, and the ag director at the Environmental Initiative in Minneapolis, Greg Bohrer, weigh in.
Cedar River Watershed Partnership
Cover Crop Insurance Incentives
Midwest Row Crop Collaborative
Conservation Effects Assessment Project (CEAP)
Consumers are demanding more sustainably grown food. So are big food companies. But how willing are they to offset the costs — and the risks — that farmers bear as they change up their practices? Zach and Mitchell talk with Jerry Lynch, the chief sustainability officer at General Mills, about supply chain incentives for growers.
General Mills Regenerative Agriculture Initiative
There are a lot of technologies available these days like sensors, geo-mapping, robots, and all sorts of other big data tools. The idea behind them, of course, is to make farming more efficient, and ultimately more profitable. Those technologies can also help growers farm more sustainably. Mitchell and Zach talk with precision ag expert Raj Khosla and Illinois farmer Michael Ganschow and try to parse how good some of the tech really is at this point, especially when it comes to nitrogen sensors. Zach and Mitchell also contemplate a world where robots take over. Skynet is becoming aware, people.
Raj Khosla at Colorado State
The Illinois Nutrient Research & Education Council
Cover crops blanket the soil from the time you harvest one crop until you plant the next. And there’s a long list of benefits they provide: they can replenish soil in between planting, prevent soil erosion, slow water down, pull moisture deeper into the soil, and increase soil organic matter over time. For Doug Adams, an Iowa farmer and soil conservation technician at USDA-NRCS, cover crops also provide a way to recycle his nutrient dollars. In this episode, he tells Zach and Mitchell about how much he hates seeing valuable fertilizer leak out of his system, as it’s never coming back. “If I can get a good cover crop established,” he says, “it will help sequester some of those nitrates and other fertilizer and keep it from getting flushed out of my system.” Also in this episode: Mitchell explains what it means to “keep it squatchy,” and Zach weighs in on how to speak Minnesotan to earthworms.
Farmers collect a lot of data on fields, inputs, and yields. But many questions remain about how to use the data and who to share it with. Zach and Mitchell talk to Charles Baron of Farmers Business Network and John McGuire of Simplified Technology Services about what farmers have to gain or lose in sharing their data, especially when it relates to sustainable ag practices.
Many farmers have heard the alarming statistic that we’re losing topsoil to erosion about 10 times faster than it can be replenished. We want to keep our soil healthy and intact so we can continue farming and be more resilient in the face of increased severe weather events. In this episode, Zach and Mitchell talk to Jim Isermann of the Soil Health Partnership, an initiative of the National Corn Growers Association. Jim tells the guys that building soil health takes time, but it’s something every farmer can improve, whether they’re starting with high quality or poor quality ground.
Soil Health Partnership
Nutrient management is an art as much as it is a science. And nitrogen, in particular, can be a difficult nutrient to manage. Understanding how it behaves in soil systems can help farmers increase its uptake and minimize nitrogen loss to the environment, where it can pollute water. University of Minnesota extension specialist Brad Carlson and Minnesota farmer Mark Bauer have been working together for years to figure out the best plan for nutrient stewardship on Mark’s farm. They share their insights with Zach and Mitchell and get nerdy about nitrogen.
Sometimes the hurdles to sustainable practices come from people right in a farmer’s network: family, landowners, neighbors, seed dealers, and lenders. Bryan and Lauren Biegler, farmers in Minnesota, join Zach and Mitchell to discuss how they fought back the image of being “hippie farmers” as they started strip tilling and planting cover crops. Mollie Aronowitz, a land manager at the People’s Company in Iowa, and Randy Dell from the Nature Conservancy also offer helpful insights into landlord/farmer dynamics around conservation.
Bryan and Lauren Biegler
Collaboration is Key for Farmers and Landowners
There are a lot of big questions to consider for farmers interested in trying out cover crops. Perhaps the most important one, according to cover crop coach Steve Groff, is this: what do you want to accomplish? Zach and Mitchell talk with Steve about the benefits of cover crops, the roadblocks to their adoption, and why he thinks farmers need cover crop mentors.
We explore the benefits and downsides of drain tile with Rodney Rulon, an Indiana farmer, and Matt Helmers, the director of the Iowa Nutrient Research Center at Iowa State University. Drain tiles dry out and warm up fields, boost productivity, and extend growing seasons, which can make them important economically. But they can also have negative effects on water quality. Zach and Mitchell talk with their guests about how to offset some of those negative effects within the farm’s system.
Drainage Water Quality Impacts Study
Study looking at impacts of nitrogen application timing and cover crop inclusion on subsurface drainage water quality
In this episode, you’ll learn about our hosts and what drives their interest in sustainable agriculture. Zach Johnson, a farmer near Alexandria, Minnesota, also hosts the popular MN Millennial Farmer series on YouTube. Zach’s experiments with cover crops and conservation tillage have been a “disaster” so far. But he really wants to figure out how to make them work. Meanwhile, co-host Mitchell Hora has seen a lot of success with conservation practices on his southeastern Iowa farm and in his role as a soil health consultant. Their different geographies and perspectives set the table for lively conversations.
Field Work is a podcast that showcases frank, realistic discussions about the benefits and challenges of adopting sustainable ag practices. It’s hosted by two commercial row crop farmers, Zach Johnson and Mitchell Hora. They’re two guys who believe farming needs to become more sustainable but know first-hand what kinds of trade-offs might be necessary. Join them for a great season of conversations starting Wednesday, May 1.