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Every Day is Earth Day for Farmers


We recently interviewed Ryan Graham, crop farmer and custom operator from Butler, PA. April 22 was Earth Day, a day celebrated around the world, highlighting the importance of protecting our natural resources. Ryan shared about stewardship practices he uses on his farm to protect the air, land and water for generations to come. 

First, start by telling our listeners about yourself and your farm.

We're on the third generation on our farm. I spent 21 years, I can't believe it, in this business. I started custom work 20 years ago, and that was more to support me rather than the farm, because the farm was originally dairy. We've moved from that into grain, hay and grain.

We farm 1,500 acres of corn, soybeans, wheat and hay. Custom work is mostly planting. That's just what I moved in towards.

My wife, Roxanne, runs the planters, baler and combine. My father helps with planting the soybeans and most all the cover crops, and a little bit with the hay.

Farming is an ancient practice, but we’ve changed many farming methods over the years as we’ve learned more about how to be conscientious stewards of the land. Ryan, let’s talk about conservation practices you use on your farm. Explain to our listeners (which some may not be familiar with farming) about those practices and how they improve soil quality and the environment.

We started no-till in 27 years ago. For those that don't understand no-till, we do not plow, we did not turn the soil over. We will take the planter in and plant directly into the crop that was there last year. We haven't owned a plow in 15 years. That is a main conservation practice for erosion and other things. For us, it more started out as a cost savings, but we quickly turned to more in the conservation end of it.

We did some cover crops years ago, but we didn't realize the benefits till recent. A cover crop is a crop planted after the cash crop. We want them to overwinter, so we always have something green on the soil, keeping the soil protected.

We have made some big strides in our soil health over the last five years doing this. With the cover crops in the early years, we didn't understand the benefits, but I was fortunate enough to be asked to join the board of the Pennsylvania No-Till Alliance, and that was a real eye-opener for me on where I was and where I could go. They really taught me a lot. I thought I was doing pretty good, but a little guidance helped our soil health.

I'm in a Pasa three-year soil health study right now and it is helping to show how our soil is changing. I'm the farthest west farm in Pennsylvania that is in row crop in this study. It's interesting.

Our goal is to be 100% planted in cover crops after harvest. We've also eliminated almost all of our insecticides, which insecticides is a hot button with the water quality.

In 2020, we only put insecticides on 75 acres of our 1,500, so we feel we're doing a pretty good job of only applying when we need those kinds of products. That's where we're going.

Cover crops are going to change. We're trying to do more multi-species and figuring out what multi-species will work in the fall. Summer multi-species are pretty easy. I say pretty easy, they might not be to everybody, but the multi-species in the fall, whenever you're dealing after corn and beans, that's a little bit of a fun one to play with to see what will survive.

With that, what multi-species are you looking at? What have you typically used as a cover crop in the past?

The summertime will be a clover or a 5/7-way blend from different companies that we'll use in the summer.

We did a real interesting one here on my house. I'm surrounded by houses in western Pennsylvania. We had full season wheat planted. We harvested the wheat and for a trial, I said I was not going to spray it to plant my cover. So I planted annual rye grass and crimson clover, and then the next day I came back in and planted sunflowers. We were able to get the sunflowers harvested, and most of it survived through the winter - the cover, rye grass and a little bit of wheat. But it was more just to make the neighborhood something to look at.

The late fall stuff, we're dabbling with some clovers and wheat and rye. If we don't get it done in the fall, we'll plant oats in February, just to get the biology started back up in the soil before we plant our row crops.

When you were talking there about improving of soil health and soil quality, what does that mean for you?

Improving the soil health improves our organic matter and our water infiltration. It's not just, "Oh, it's healthier."

The more water we can hold, the better. The more we can get it in the ground, the better, because of the less runoff. If we do have run off, because of the healthier soils the run off will be clear, not murky from soil.

We are typically a droughty area, right where we're at. Some places are worse than us, that's for sure, some places are better. But we typically go dry in July and August. So, the more our soil can hold, the healthier it is. The more our soil can hold in water, the better we can get through the dry spells. We've seen that with the no-till we can add a few more bushels than the neighbors that plow, with less stress on the crop.

Why do you personally feel it is important to implement practices that protect our natural resources?

Protecting our natural resources should be everybody's goal, in my opinion. We want to leave it better for the next generation. My son is two. I think he's going to take over this whenever I'm done, and I want him to have it better than I did.

There is only so much land left, and the population of the world is growing. We have to do it a better way. We use less herbicides and less pesticides. We're trying to be as sustainable as we can, while making a living at it.

The biggest thing we see is we don’t say, "That won't work here." We have to try it. We're looking at mechanical rollers for the cover crops so we can cut our herbicide usage even more, and be more selective on our variety of selections. We are looking at some selective GMO's instead of a blanket program. Blanket programs don't work. You need to be tailored to what the soil needs and what your crop needs.

As we wrap up today, what would you tell our listeners about how farmers care for the environment? 

This will be an interesting question, because through the Pennsylvania No-Till Alliance, we have been big promoters of healthier soils and better water.

What some of our members had the chance to do is go to Tangiers Island in Chesapeake Bay and talked to the fishermen directly. The fisherman thanked our board members for everything that the farmers have done to help the Chesapeake improve.

Regardless what you hear, these were firsthand discussions about how much we are changing the Bay. If we can change the Bay that much, we can change every watershed that much.

As farmers, if we can grow a better crop with less harmful inputs, we will. Our inputs are not free or cheap, so we can't afford to over-apply them. The management practices we try sometimes works, sometimes don't, but we have the goal in mind to be better for a better neighborhood, better watershed and better water.

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