By Liz Juchems
Chris Henning is a farmer, philosopher and conservationist, living and working in Greene County in west-central Iowa. Her life as a farmer began in 1992 when she moved from Des Moines to a farm in Greene County near the family farm where she grew up.
Prairie Skye Farm was an investment and career change for Chris after her children were grown. Comprised of 145 rolling acres — 126 tillable acres with 19 acres of timberland and four creeks — the farm is in the lower third of the Raccoon River Watershed, and due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control, she learned exactly what that meant less than a year after getting started.
“While living in Des Moines, we really didn’t think much about farming and how decisions made by farmers might affect our lives in the city,” Chris recalls. “But when the 1993 storms hit, causing devastating flooding here in Greene County, and then in Des Moines and beyond, I got some quick and serious lessons about the power of water and how practices on my farm impact lives and property downstream. It takes about two to three days for the water running off my fields to potentially end up in some Des Moines basement.”
1993 a tough year for Iowa
Prairie Skye Farm had been farmed using traditional tillage practices and was marginally productive. Corn production was less than 100 bushels per acre, and soybeans were about 30 bushels per acre. “The best crop was cockleburs,” she says.
During the July 1993 storms, water ran off with such force that huge amounts of soil were gouged from fields and creek banks, roads over box culverts were completely washed away, and water swamped hip-high corn and much of the soybean crop. It threatened farmsteads.
“I saw the devastation on the farm,” Chris says, “but it really hit home when I learned the neighborhood we left the year before suffered significant flooding. It was a turning point in my thinking about how I wanted to operate my farm and started me on a path of learning about conservation.”
Connection to land
Chris has a strong connection with her land and is passionate about both the operation of the farm and the potential benefits and effects farming decisions have on the greater natural ecosystem. Following the approach her father used — except for two years when she cash-rented the farm — she has partnered with a farmer who shares her farming views in a crop-share arrangement that gives her a direct role in management decisions for her farm.
In 1995, as a result of the flooding, Chris consulted with an agronomist and received help from Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation to take steps to reduce soil erosion. She took 26 acres out of production and established buffer strips between the fields and streams. Buffer strips act as sponges to slow and absorb water, reducing sheet erosion and enabling the filtering of nutrients. She noted that prairie plants in the buffer strips enhance soil and water retention because of their extensive root systems.
BUFFER STRIPS: “Buffer strips between fields and streams enhance soil and water retention on the land and help keep the creeks cleaner,” Chris Henning says.
“Buffer strips were my first step toward a more conservation-oriented approach to farming,” Chris says. “Watching soil-laden water rushing down from the fields to the streams, I saw future production capacity wash away, and understood that the loss of rich topsoil would only require more investment and effort to achieve acceptable production. The buffer strips impede that flow and help me preserve the land and keep the creeks cleaner.”
Working together with her farmer on Prairie Skye Farm, Chris adopted cover crops in 2007, and no-till the following year. She attests to the improved soil quality as a fundamental contributor to improved yields. In 2018, GMO soybeans produced 60 bushels per acre, a near doubling of the production from her early years. With the experience and knowledge she gained from this farm, she was well-prepared to expand her efforts when more land came into her possession.
3 farms, 3 owners, 3 ideas
In 2008, in the settling of her father’s estate, Chris inherited a portion of her family’s farm. With six siblings in her generation, there were multiple ideas and approaches to how the land should be farmed. Each member of the family who inherited land from the family farm operates independently, using the techniques and practices they feel work best for them.
One of the original farms was split into three pieces. The parcel Chris acquired is called Pond Farm, which has 33.8 acres in production, 16 acres of wetland (4-acre pond and 12-acre buffer), and 12 acres of Conservation Reserve Program wildlife land with pollinator plantings. Under her ownership, the farm has been in corn and soybean rotation since 2010, with no-till and cover crops since 2011.
Directly adjacent to Pond Farm are two separate farms owned respectively by Chris’ sister Anita and brother-in-law David. Each farm is operated independently, and with different thoughts about conservation and farming techniques between the three owners, it presents an educational case study.
Chris and David have the same farmer working their land through crop-share agreements. Anita has an agreement with a different farmer. All three farms follow the same corn-soybean rotation.
Anita’s farmer employs full tillage on the farm, typically done in the fall. He operates the farm following accepted conventional practices and obtains acceptable crop yields.
Chris and David use the same seed and herbicide programs, but have different approaches regarding tilling and cover crops.
David’s farm has been operated with a combination of no-till and full tillage — particularly after corn. He has not planted cover crops but keeps a close watch on the performance of Chris’ adjacent fields. Comparative yields between the two farms have been within 2 to 3 bushels.
“Study reports, such as the 10-year study conducted by Iowa Learning Farms and Practical Farmers of Iowa, clearly show the benefits of cover crops and prove what I see on my farm,” Chris says. “There is no yield penalty from cover crops.”
After tilling David’s field, the farmer reported major growth of volunteer corn. Chris’ no-till acres had almost no volunteer corn in the same season. Weed pressure is also significantly lower in the field planted to a cover crop field. Interestingly, the farmer has planted cover crops on some of his own farmland.
After one torrential spring rain, the farmer also noted significantly more soil erosion from his neighboring fields without cover crops.
Chris would like to do a comparison of organic matter in the soils of the three adjacent farms. The measurements on Pond Farm range from 2.3% to 4.9%. Her expectation is that the measurements would show lower values in both David’s and Anita’s fields.
“We all do soil tests after every third year; it’ll be interesting to see those results,” Chris says. “The output from the three farms may be similar, but the fact that Pond Farm is losing less soil to erosion, and nutrients are not washing away into the creeks, makes me feel that I’m well ahead in the long run. It’s a long-term investment in my land, much like adding lime, and I think the money is worth it.”
Influence of early adopters
“I’m an early adopter of conservation farming techniques, but I’m not alone,” Chris says. “I’ve had a lot of company from other farmers in the county who are willing to share ideas and try new things, including my no-till role model who is going on 35 years with the practice; my cover crop guy, a fourth-generation farmer; and other farmers whose fathers [and] families were the early adopters of their generation.
SHARING INFORMATION: Chris Henning practices soil conservation and water quality advocacy, speaking at seminars and hosting field days on her Greene County farm.
“I’ve also enjoyed support from and contributed to the efforts of organizations such as ILF, PFI, Iowa Soybean Association, Greene County Natural Resource Conservation Service, and the Soil and Water Commission. The level of advocacy and leadership about conservation is amazing and very helpful.”
Chris practices advocacy along with other conservation leaders through participating in seminars, hosting field days and speaking with any farmer that expresses an interest in conservation practices. She is participating in two grant projects with the Women, Food and Ag Network to bring information about cover crops and soil health to women landowners across the Midwest.
To learn more about conservation farming, visit iowalearningfarms.org
Juchems is an Iowa Learning Farms conservation outreach specialist.