Farmers and others waded through fields of canola, soybeans and sunflowers on July 27 to learn about alternative ways to grow crops in a tour sponsored by the North Dakota State University Extension.
The tour took participants through fields owned by Paul Overby of Wolford, and Nathan Neameyer of Bisbee.
The group of about 50 on the tour walked waist-deep in sunflower plants grown by Overby. But the purple flax flowers blooming beneath the shade of the sunflower plants drew their attention downward.
Along with the flax, pea plants bloomed in the field Overby said was set aside as an experiment on pollination.
Overby said putting the pollinator-friendly plants in with the sunflowers both improved the health of the soil and increasing the sunflowers’ yield by attracting bees and other insects, then keeping them around until the sunflowers bloomed, pollinating them as well.
The farm also held a plot planted with non-pollinators to serve as a control for the study.
Overby’s farm also included a wheat field interseeded with cover crops.
“That is primarily to build soil health by getting the cover crops planted early, so they have more time to grow in the fall, providing the benefit of capturing sunlight and feeding the soil microbiology,” Overby said.
He invited the group to walk into his peaola field. The plot had been planted with canola, which bloomed yellow on the surface. White pea blossoms peeked out from beneath the canola.
“By having a crop like peas growing with canola, there is the potential for the two crops’ root exudates (products given off by the roots) to stimulate the soil microbiology in a synergistic manner, both benefiting the two crops as well as providing for a long-term benefit to soil health,” he added, emphasizing how two different crops help one another.
Overby noted some research indicated using pea plants added nitrogen to the soil, benefitting the canola and reducing the need to add nitrogen to the soil.
He told attendees that farmers in Canada use the practice of planting peas with canola.
“We started a long time ago – back in 2005, we started no-tilling,” Overby told the crowd, describing his farming practice. “But it’s starting to come back around. We’re seeing food companies interested in things being raised regeneratively.”
Among the tourists were representatives from agriculture firms Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) and Cargill.
Overby noted the firms were studying regenerative agriculture.
Jaime Goehner, a representative for ADM attending the tour said she and others were “talking about whether it could be a sustainable option for the future with policy changes and the availability of a market for the product.”
Overby told the group, “What makes me excited about that is hopefully, customers will be getting a higher-value food product. And farmers will be getting a little bit of a premium to go along with that, and we’ll start seeing the benefits of the food chain coming together for everybody.
“Soil health is a big piece of that – no-till, cover crops, crop rotation, keeping your soil covered – all those things work together,” he added.
The tour also walked through a soybean field intercropped with canola, and another soybean field planted with a mulch of cereal rye purposely killed with herbicide to provide a weed-resistant environment for the soybeans to grow.
The soybeans were an herbicide-resistant variety.
“The rye serves a lot of functions,” Neameyer said. “And rye’s easy to kill with herbicide.”
“Plus, small-seeded weeds like kocia and mare’s tail, which are tough weeds to kill and resistant to Round-Up, the rye will hold in check.” he said.
Neameyer said the plants’ roots give off substances that “hamper the germination of small-seeded weeds.”
“So, that’s Mother Nature’s way of controlling what goes on in your field instead of using an herbicide.” he said.
“The reason I do this, is right now, we’ve got a lot of supply chain issues. Chemicals were a little tough to get this year and the cost has gone up exponentially,” he added.
Neameyer raised soybeans and canola together in another experimental plot to study what he described as a natural way of crop insurance.
“Currently, we have a very good crop insurance program, but it’s owned and administrated by the government and, should that change, we may need another method of insurance,” he said. “Intercropping is a method where you have two crops growing in one field and Mother Nature kind of chooses what’s going to grow better in each area of the field.
“You might have an area that’s a little too wet or a little too dry; one that has a different pH from another area; or one area is sandy or heavier clay, or whatever the conditions are,” he explained.
“(Intercropping) will allow one crop to dominate and the other to be subservient. So, Mother Nature chooses what grows best where,” Neameyer added.
“Let’s say you get a hailstorm part way through the growing season. Different plants will take hail better or worse, depending on their growth stage,” he said. “So, now, you’ve got two different plants growing in the field at two different stages of their life cycle. And maybe one will take it better than the other when you get a hailstorm and that one takes over and you get a better yield result than you would have with just a single crop that really got damaged by the hail.”
Neameyer said he planted both crops in the same furrows. He added he had first tried his “crop insurance” method in 2018.
“The first time I did this, I thought it was a huge success and a better money maker than just about anything else I had on the farm,” he said.
“I got 22 bushels to the acre of soybeans and 1,300 bushels to the acre of canola when I harvested. You do that math on the prices, and there was no fertilizer used; there was only one herbicide pass used, and there was no crop insurance purchased for this because you can’t buy crop insurance for this,” he added. “So, it was relatively inexpensive to raise and my gross dollars out of it were on the higher side than anything else on my farm.”
Neameyer said he aimed to use the least amount of chemicals possible.
He added North Dakota’s conditions didn’t favor purely organic farming, but he had toured a successful organic farm south of Rugby.
“But,” Neameyer added, “we try to inch closer to it and try to get better and use the least amount we can, for two reasons – it’s what the public wants and it’s less expensive for us if we do it that way.”