As chaotic as 2020 has been, it’s important to take a step back and recognize the good that is happening all around us, and the positive influence that individuals have in our own communities. The Scott Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) does that every year with their Conservation Leaders program, which gives appreciation and recognition to outstanding conservationists, trendsetters, and stewards of the land in Scott County. This year, the Scott SWCD is proud to recognize Vern and Becky Wick as the 2020 Conservation Leaders.
Over the years, Vern and Becky have converted their traditional farming operation into 100% no-till. They also plant cover crops, practice rotational grazing with their dairy herd, maintain grassed waterways, and speak about their experiences at workshops and field days. The journey they took to make it where they are today is remarkable.
Vern and Becky Wick have been farming in Jordan, Minnesota for their entire farming careers, taking over Vern’s family farm. Up until 2016, they had a traditional operation of corn, soybeans, and small grains with a dairy operation that sustained their growing family. The Wick’s had been battling gully erosion and soil loss for years, despite the previously installed grassed waterways. Each year brought heavy washouts from rain, with 2014 hitting hard—like it did to many producers in the county. They knew something had to be done to fix the ongoing problem, but weren’t sure where to begin.
The family remembers one particular night in 2016, however, when the Wick’s oldest son was attending college at SDSU and started learning about alternative farming practices. One night, he showed Vern and Becky YouTube videos from notable soil health figures in the Midwest like Ray Archuleta and David Brandt. They watched videos on erosion demonstrations, cover crops, sustainable practices, and soil health lectures. They clicked on video after video, enthralled with the information being presented, and something clicked for both of them: they could try these things on their farm, too.
The Start of Something New
That night was the beginning of a new direction for them. Vern and Becky decided together that they wanted to do whatever they could to both better their farming practices and improve local soil health. “It was so important that we were both on the same page from the beginning,” Becky reminisces. “Being together throughout it all made the transition and changes possible.” After the Wick’s discovered the information and tutorials available to them online, they also started attending conferences and workshops. They went all over south central Minnesotafrom Albert Lea to right here in Scott County. They gleaned knowledge from producers who had been where they were, and offered their experience as a stepping stone for other producers. Their knowledge and experiences inspired the Wick’s to start making changes on their farm.
And Vern and Becky made changes happen! A common recommendation among soil health experts is “start small” when transitioning agricultural practices. But Vern and Becky dove in headfirst. They started with no-till farming in 2016, and they didn’t just try one section of their land to start out, they did all their fields. “We both had the thought ‘this is good for the soil. Why just do one part of it?’” Vern explains.
No-till, like its name suggests, involves planting directly into the stubble from the previous crop, rather than turning over the top layer of soil first. The benefits include reduced soil loss, improved soil structure, and reduced input costs. The 221 acres they manage has been no-till ever since. Vern is living proof that sustainable changes to farm operations don’t have to be costly. Instead of adding expensive attachments to his planter, Vern fills his insecticide boxes with sand to get enough down pressure to get the seed to the right depth. He also purchased different closing wheels for his planter that allow for better seed to soil contact within no-till practices. He also rents the no-till drill from the SWCD to plant his alfalfa, small grains, and cover crops.
Since the conversion, the erosion problems that had troubled their fields before are now reduced considerably.
Keep Moving Forward
Finding success with no-till, the Wick’s demonstrated their willingness to try new things again in 2017 when they signed a three-year cover crop agreement with the Scott (SWCD). They were the office’s first sign-ups to the new program, serving both as trendsetters, and experimenters.
For the Wick’s, three years of cover crops were three years of playing around with seed mixes and techniques. “It’s all about finding what’s best for your farm. We spent a lot of time switching up mixes and techniques. We’re still on the journey to find the perfect fit,” Becky says.
The Wick’s also began rotational grazing their dairy herd. In their case, every couple years Vern and Becky take one of their fields out of row crop production and plant it to pasture. Rotational grazing gave their herd freedom of movement, an inexpensive food source, and free fertilizer for the fields. “You can tell, the cows are happier now too” Vern says.
The changes and alterations that the Wick’s have made in their operation demonstrate amazing land stewardship, a hunger for knowledge, and optimism for the future. And over these last four years, they feel they’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible.
Reflections for the Future
The Wick’s are always conscious of their impact on the land, and put consideration for the future at the forefront of their decisions. “We know we won’t be here forever, and we want to leave the land better than we found it.” Becky and Vern agree.
With all their wisdom, they were asked what advice they had for farmers and producers who are thinking about implementing new, conservation practices on their land. “If you want to get started, reach out to your local SWCD. They’ll know how to help,” they said. “And don’t be afraid to ask questions. We’ve asked so many, and we’re always learning. Take notes. Keep records. They’ll help you remember the little changes and improvements, and they’ll help you figure out what works best for you.”
Congratulations to Vern and Becky Wick for their Conservation Leader recognition, and may their positive impacts continue to improve the soil quality, water quality, and environment in Scott County.