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    This Farmer Combines Carbon Farming and Biologicals to Make His Fields Resilient Against Drought

    July 30, 2023

    Farming looks different for the Murphy family than it did when their ancestors started in southeast Kansas in the late 1800s. As drought conditions have become more severe, they’ve modified their farming practices, like reducing tillage, to maintain as much moisture on the field as possible. When Jeff Murphy took the lead of the family farm a few years ago, he chose to embrace more carbon farming practices. Today, he says that the practices he’s implemented, combined with Indigo’s biological seed treatments, are improving his soil health and making his crops more resilient against environmental stresses like heat and drought. Plus, the new practices he introduced are providing an additional income stream through Indigo’s carbon program. In our recent interview with him, Jeff shared how all of these benefits are working together to make the family business sustainable for future generations.

    Why did you make the shift to regenerative ag practices like no-till and cover crops?

    I really wanted to reduce the input costs, so hopefully that'll increase profitability, as well as improve our soil for profitability now. But I also want future generations to have improved soil, so I want to leave our land better than I found it.

    You mentioned your dad’s interest in it, but how did you get the understanding and curiosity about building soil health, and then learn to think of that as part of your job as you raise these crops?

    I've really always been interested in it, even through going to college at Kansas State and taking the soils class. I remember being very into no-till at that time for the soil health benefits, but I didn't understand the cover crop side of it at all. When my dad was really needing to retire for health reasons, or slow down at least, and then I was going to be taking it on, it made me even more inspired to find ways to reduce cost because of the high prices and the amount of money I was going to have to borrow to plant the crops. Also the labor piece with no-till – anything we can do to reduce labor, we will. So that got me really interested. And then, I got to reading and I did a lot of reading in the No-Till Farmer. I ran into an article with Gabe Brown out of North Dakota. That led me to YouTube, and I watched Gabe Brown and Dave Brandt and a lot of other farmers talking about cover crops and no-till. And then I just decided I wanted to try it and go from there and keep learning. I've read Gabe's book and gone to several different trainings with his group, Understanding Ag. But yeah, 90% of what we're doing is being done in a regenerative way.

    When did you get started with those practices, and what was your approach?

    On the cover crops, it has been about three years; we're on a third year. The first year, I only did about 30 acres, and these past two years, I've done 75% of what we have, so 600 or 700 acres. It's a big learning experience. We've never done this before, so it's a lot different as far as how you plant into the cover crops and manage the residue, but it seems to be going pretty well.

    We've been doing no-till for 20 years on soybeans and wheat, but we hadn't tried it on corn, so I started that. I did quite a bit of research on upgrading the planter to make sure that we could handle the no-till, and I think it's worked pretty well. The crops are a little bit slower to respond, and the planting date will be a little bit later because the soil needs to warm up. But I'm getting used to it, it just takes a little bit of a mental shift to do things a little bit differently, at a slightly different time than our neighbors. I'm learning a lot and things seem to be responding.

    What impact is it having on your soil? Have you noticed visible changes?

    I see some improvements in the soil. We're seeing more aggregation, more earthworms in the soil. I'm also using the Haney Soil Health Test, so we’re seeing some improvement in that, as far as the CO2 respiration in the soil.

    I think the cover crops can be a tremendous benefit in the dry year, as far as having cover on them to preserve moisture. And then, if you can get the mycorrhizal fungi going in your cycle of your microbes as well, it can be much more water efficient, I know that. And I think I've seen it in our crops.

    You mentioned earthworms – are you noticing other changes in biodiversity on your land?

    Yeah, we’re seeing a lot more of that – more insect activity. I'm seeing a lot more field mice.  Coyotes, birds, a lot of bird activities. They can damage crops, but yeah, it's pretty interesting. Actually, the holes that they dig in the ground can aerate the soil. I usually see crops doing better.

    One thing you mentioned as we started this conversation is that you're trying to get away from using synthetic chemicals, can you tell us more about that?

    Health reasons, I think. I've done enough reading and just my own observation and my own health. If there is a way that we could get away from these chemicals, I think it would be good for everybody. So I'm interested, I'm not there yet. Because I don't want to do tillage, it's going to take a really, really healthy cover crop to suppress those weeds enough. I've experimented with it a little bit on a small field last year and it seemed to work, so I definitely think it's possible. We'll have to have the right conditions to make that work, for sure.

    How have Indigo’s biologicals played a role in this transition for you? What have the results been so far?

    I've used the biotrinsic® W13 biological seed treatments on wheat. I know last year, we checked it, and I saw, I believe, a four bushel yield increase. So that was very good, and convinced me to try it this year on everything. It definitely ties into what I've learned about the soil and the importance of the microbes in the soil and how they interact with the plants, so it makes sense.

    You've also enrolled in Indigo's carbon program. What's that experience been like for you?

    We’ve only received one payment so far but it seemed to be good. So right now it’s still about the cost savings of the practices and the soil health for us. We're definitely saving on fuel and labor. And then, on the fertilizer side, I have reduced fertilizing, but I'm doing it pretty slowly.We need to increase our biological activity before we can start decreasing fertilizer too much. I've decreased by 10% to 20% in the past two years, from what we were doing. And I'm hoping that I can keep decreasing at that rate, would be my hope. I'm going to use my Haney Soil Test to justify that.

    What benefits are you seeing beyond soil health?

    This past year was terrible for farmers, because of the drought. We had crops to harvest that were low-yielding – soybeans was, I think we were 15 to 20 bushel, and now more like 10 to 15 bushel, and the corn was five to 25. But I will say that a lot of my neighbors had zero. In fact, a lot of people couldn't even plant until there was no moisture left, and then they couldn't plant at all. So it paid off in that we had some crop to harvest and market, when a lot of people didn't.

    It sounds like you’re doing everything you can to keep your farm operation profitable for the future. Earlier you mentioned your son. Is your son and the next generation part of how you think about the choices you make as a farmer?

    Yeah, I really think so. For me, and it has a lot to do with my faith too, because I really believe that humans should be stewarding the land. The more that I look at that, that's a higher calling from God, really. And a lot of that, to me, is about passing it on to the next generation and doing something that's not just for yourself. So yeah, that's a big part of it. My older son is pretty active on the farm and he says he is interested in being involved.

    Curious about whether carbon farming practices are the right fit for your farm? Read The 6 Questions to Ask Before Signing Up for a Carbon Program.

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