Indiana corn and soybean farmer Rick Clark is Field to Market’s Farmer of the Year 2019, recognized for “outstanding conservation efforts on his farm and leadership in advancing sustainable agriculture”. We spoke to him about how his farming practices benefit productivity, profitability and the planet.

Can you tell us more about your farm?

I run Clark Land & Cattle, a circa 2,830-hectare (7,000-acre) farm near Williamsport, Indiana. The farm has been in my family for five generations – my ancestors homesteaded here in the 1870s. Today I run it with my wife Carol, my father Richard and my nephew Aaron.

We have a diverse mix of crops and we have cattle. We are 100% non-GMO on all crops and we don’t use any starter fertilizer, fungicide, seed treatment or insecticide at all.

World Soil Day was on December 5 and Field to Market recognized your dedication to continuous soil health. Why is soil health so important to you and what are some of the practices you are using to promote it?

I see soil health as synonymous with human health, which is why I no longer use insecticide or any other chemicals on my land. Of course, I care about yield but it’s not what drives my farming system. Being a low-cost input producer, being a good steward and a conservation-minded individual are what matter. My goal is to build a symbiotic relationship with Mother Nature.

As for the practices we use, the first is crop rotation. As well as adding nutrients such as nitrogen to the soil, crop rotation interrupts pest and disease cycles, reducing weeds, insects, and the need for chemical pesticides. One-third of our farm is in a three-crop rotation – corn, soybeans and wheat. Another third is in a four-crop rotation – corn, soybeans, wheat and alfalfa for a nearby dairy. The remaining third is in transition to organic. We have just got approval for our first organic certified acres, which I’m very excited about.

We also practice no-till farming. By not disturbing the soil, we reduce soil erosion and sequester carbon, which mitigates climate change. We’ve been growing no-till soybeans for the past 15 years and no-till corn and cover crops for the past ten years. And we’ve been “farming green” for eight.

Can you explain what you mean by “farming green” and what led you to adopt it?

Farming green means that we plant our cash crop of corn or soybeans into a living, growing green cover crop, and we only terminate the cover crop after we plant. You could say that Mother Nature forced us into this approach one year when it wouldn’t stop raining and our cover crops grew too big. We thought it was going to be a disaster, but we soon realized that by letting the cover crop grow longer we could maximize what it was intended to do and bring in more nutrients. Research backs up the benefits of this approach. Nutrient analysis by an agronomy firm showed that cereal rye contained only about 23 kgs (50 pounds) of N when it was 12 inches tall. By 28 inches, it has 45 kg (100 pounds) of nitrogen (N), and holds 100 kgs (220 pounds) of K2O.  By making the most of the cover crops I’m able to eliminate my inputs.

Can you tell us more about how farming green brings vital nutrients to the soil? What are some of the other benefits?

Growing cover crops fixes nitrogen, suppresses weeds, limits erosion, ‘armors’ the soil and limits evaporation – something we perhaps don’t think about enough, but in extreme heat it really matters.

By farming green, we are protecting soil microbes and promoting microbial growth. We’re sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, we are capturing carbon and leaving it in the soil profile. In short, we are doing everything we possibly can to be good for the planet.

There are business benefits, too. As part of a broader approach to regenerative agriculture, farming green has allowed us to reduce our inputs and associated costs. We are saving €570,000 ($632,000) a year just by reducing inputs such as diesel fuel, horsepower, synthetic nitrogen and other ag chemicals. And these savings are repeated every year.

Stability of yield is another advantage. Before introducing cover crops our corn yield would vary by 710 kgs (28 bushels) throughout the year. Now, since implementing cover crops, our standard deviation is just four. I am pretty comfortable knowing what my expected yield is going to be and I can confidently forward contract based on those numbers, which puts me in a position of strength.

People often ask me about yield drag. I tell them that there isn’t one. At the moment we’re on a trajectory of increased yields of 102 kgs (four bushels) per acre per year for corn. For soybeans we’re looking at a yield increase of 35 kgs (1.3 bushels). 

How important is data to your operations?  How do you use it? 

It’s crucial. We’re a data-driven farm. Good data leads to good decision-making, which puts you in a position of strength.

There are always a number of tests going on at any given time on our farm, which might be trying out a certain cover crop or how we terminate it. By collecting data I’m able to sit down and make the best decisions for the farm and for the future.

Data also allows me to measure our environmental progress. We’ve been using Field to Market’s Fieldprint Platform for the past six years. It’s a great way to draw a baseline of where you are today – your carbon footprint, what you are doing for the ecology and for the environment?  It is only by having a baseline that you can you see what direction your soil health is heading in.

The Fieldprint Platform is an awesome tool for me to incorporate in my thought process—are the systems we have in place working? And could we improve on them? The benefits that we have gained from this Platform have put me in a position to make the decisions that I want to make to move this systematic approach forward.

What do you hope to achieve by sharing your approach to soil health and regenerative farming?

If a few people can go out and implement some of the things that we’re doing at Clark Land & Cattle, then that’s a success. I hope that one day the world can see that the regenerative systematic approach to farming is the better way to farm.