Son of the Soil

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What can be more iconic than an image of a farmer holding soil? But when I took the photo featured below, it was more than a symbol—it was visual proof that a good farmer can be as passionate about all that hidden life beneath our feet as some people are about art, science, sports or politics.

Those hands belong to southeast Minnesota crop and livestock farmer Duane Hager, and I snapped that photo 15 years ago. When I came upon the image recently while doing some filing, I was reminded of how fun it is to spend time with someone who takes  an intense interest in something, then through observation and experimentation learns every last detail about it. And finally, they use that acquired knowledge to protect and improve the object of their passion.

I can’t count how many times over the past decade and a half  I’ve had a double handful of soil held up to me by a farmer who’s proud of its smell, look and feel. But Duane Hager was the first. I remember we were driving around his farm on a summer day while I interviewed him about soil quality for the Land Stewardship Letter. Suddenly, he stopped in one of those fields that wraps itself around the hilly southeast Minnesota landscape. It was clear he was saving this stop for last, and like a showman putting a climatic exclamation point on a performance, he dug up a spadeful of rich loam and held it up to the camera. Nothing more needed to be said—the interview was done.

So what a delight it was to catch up with Hager recently and discover that he was just as excited as ever about what we philistines dare to call “dirt.”

When I gave Hager a call, he repeated in so many words what he had first told me during my 1995 interview: It all starts and ends with the soil. That philosophy has allowed him to use the soil’s own defenses to ward off that bane of crop farmers in the Upper Midwest: weeds. In his quarter-century of farming just three miles from the Mississippi River, Hager has never used herbicides. Yet his corn yields are competitive with his neighbors’. In fact, the soft-spoken farmer is a bit of a legend among producers in the region who are trying to figure out how to raise row crops without chemical weed control.

Hager and his wife Susie milk 40 cows and raise 30 beef brood cows. They farm 200 acres of corn, soybeans, alfalfa hay and small grains such as wheat, oats and barley. Hager is not certified organic, and he doesn’t strike me as being adamantly opposed to any and all chemicals. But he says he’s never been tempted to utilize herbicides to control weeds simply because, well, he doesn’t see them as necessary when the soil is healthy.

“When you don’t use chemicals you don’t have the cost,” Hager said. “Also, I feel if you can maintain the health of the soil you shouldn’t need the crutch of chemicals.”

Hager is working constantly to build his soil using diverse rotations and natural mineral amendments. He doesn’t see his soil as simply a plant stand for the corn and other crops, but as a living environment that affects everything from what weeds are present to how the finished product influences the health of his livestock.

Soil tests are important to Hager, and he’s learned over the years that such tests can show not only that fields differ from each other, but also that soil characteristics can vary within the same field. For example, he’s recently been having a problem with jimson weed. (“It’s nasty, real nasty,” he says.) It tends to cluster on only certain parts of his fields, although Hager knows the seed bank for that pest plant is probably spread throughout his farm.

“We tested the soil last week where jimson weed really likes to grow, and then tested where it’s not a problem at all,” the farmer said. “I’m going to compare those soil samples to see what minerals are different. I’ve read it could be a calcium deficiency that jimson thrives on. I guess jimson doesn’t like calcium.”

Hager monitors his soil’s health in less scientific ways as well. He knows it’s healthy and not compacted when it’s crumbly and implements pull easily during fieldwork. He also looks for signs of life.

“I watch what’s going on in this soil pretty hard. When I check the planter, I can always see earthworms. Once I walked no more than six feet into my neighbor’s field and I couldn’t find any earthworms. It was amazing I could walk that short a distance and it made that much of a difference.”

Of course, even the healthiest soil produces weeds. Hager controls weeds during the growing season by, among other things, planting later in the spring than many of his neighbors. This means the soil is warmer and the corn plants get a jump on the weeds, providing a healthy canopy that can shade out the plant pests.

Hager feels he can farm the way he does without herbicides because of his relatively small scale—it allows him to manage each field individually and to adjust his methods accordingly. It also allows him to ask the kinds of questions that are moot when the answer is pre-determined by a chemical company.

“I’m always tweaking things and learning,” the farmer told me, making it clear yet again that he enjoys the pursuit of knowledge as much as what it actually leads to. “When I have a weed problem, my first question is, ‘What’s wrong with the soil?’ “

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