News From Terre Haute, Indiana

September 29, 2013

Vermillion farmer one of few in state to receive echo award

Howard Greninger
The Tribune-Star

DANA — Kelly Cheesewright of Cheesewright Farms has a passion — be the best steward of soil and water, while working to be the first in Vermillion County to reach 300 bushels of corn per acre.

“If I farm till I’m 70, I’ve only got 17 more chances to reach 300 bushels [per acre]. Just 12 more if I farm till I’m 65. Better soil means higher production,” Cheesewright said.

Cheesewright Farms’ production methods this summer garnered state recognition as being “river friendly.”

Cheesewright operates a 2,100-acre grain farm that is 100 percent no-till. Acres planted in corn include 400 acres of food-grade white corn for Frito Lay. The farm has produced food-grade yellow corn annually for the last 20 years. Soybeans are planted on about one-third of the acres. Cheesewright said he and his father experimented with cover crops back in the mid-1980s, returning to that practice about five years ago.

Cheesewright said that, back in the ’80s, there wasn’t “much support, or research or knowledge on cover crops. We were just winging it then. It has a lot of issues and takes a lot of management. Of course we didn’t have the Roundup, the things to kill [the cover crop] with. We didn’t have all the tools that we have today,” he said.

They also didn’t understand the biology of it all, Cheesewright said. “We were doing it for erosion control and weed suppression, not knowing all the biological benefits for the soil that we know today, so we got back into using cover crops,” he said.

The farm, the majority of which is near Dana, is located in the Middle Wabash-Busseron Watershed. The Cheesewright family is currently in its 30th-straight year of practicing no-till farming. That no-till soil, along with cover crops, acts like a sponge, soaking up most rain runoff and applied farm chemicals on his property, Cheesewright said.

“There are many challenges, especially with cover crops. If it was easy, everyone would be doing this,” he said, adding his farm last week received just eight-tenths of an inch of rain. It was the first rain in two months, making it hard to get cover crop seed established. “This is one challenge of cover crops, getting enough moisture to get them germinated,” he said. “A wet spring can also cause problems getting [cover crops] killed” to plant corn.

In recognition of his efforts, the 53-year-old fifth-generation farmer was among fewer than 50 farmers statewide recognized this summer with a 2013 River Friendly Farmer Award. The Indiana Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts started the River Friendly Farmer Award in 2000. Since then, 702 farmers have received the award for conservation efforts, said DeeDee Sigler, spokeswoman for the conservation group.

The award is recognition for Indiana farmers who do an excellent job of managing their farms in an environmentally and economically sound way that protects and improves Indiana’s soil and water resources for future generations, according to Sigler.

No-till and cover crops, along with spreading manure, promotes soil health, which in turn improves crop yields, Sigler said.

Cheesewright Farms manages water in a way that encourages infiltration and reduces runoff. System tile drainage, long-term no-till, cover crops, a CRP (conservation reserve program) waterway — established since 1996 — along with filter strips and field borders all are part of the farm’s conservation arsenal, Sigler said.

When there is excessive rainfall to create a runoff on his farm, Cheesewright said, “you can easily compare the runoff from our fields to a neighboring conventional [tilled] field. The majority of the time the water from our fields is clear,” without muddy, sediment runoff. “We left our soils undisturbed, with decaying root channels, earthworm holes, and we have crop residue to take away the impact of the raindrops that create the explosion that starts the erosion process.

“This keeps the nutrients out of the water supplies, the creeks, rivers and the Gulf of Mexico,” he explained. “We also don’t want soil or nutrient loss. That is money out of our pocket; plus, it is not sustainable. You can’t build up your soil if you allow a percentage of erosion.”

Cheesewright, who has known since he was a teenager that he wanted to farm, describes himself as a soil steward.

“We care about the soil and care about getting better. We don’t want to do [farming] the same old way. The saying goes, if you do what you always did, you will get what you always got,” Cheesewright said. “I am not willing to just keep doing it the same ole way that my grandpa did or my dad did; I want to make it better.”

Reporter Howard Greninger can be reached at 812-231-4204 or howard.