Editor’s Note: This is part of an ongoing series to highlight MAEAP-verified farms.
By Laura Moser
When Jon and Josh Miller of Elsie, Mich., began exploring the option of becoming MAEAP-verified, they discovered the same thing many farmers do: They already are incorporating good environmental stewardship practices; they just need to have it documented and evaluated by a MAEAP verifier.
“We have always tried to do the best for our land — from no-till in the 1980s to cover crops today,” Jon Miller says. “When we were approached about becoming MAEAP-verified, we thought it would be involved, but we didn't have to make any changes.”
Jon and his son, Josh, operate about 700 acres of land, rotating corn, soybeans and wheat on the Clinton County farm. Jon and his wife, Lynette, have owned the multigenerational farm since 1979. The Millers ran a dairy farm until 2003 when they sold the herd and shifted their business exclusively to crops.
Soil health and fertility has been a focal point for the Millers for more than 40 years. As one of the first in the county to begin using no-till, Jon has a history of using new ideas to take care of his land. While the use of no-till was not efficient with livestock because of the need to also raise alfalfa and corn silage, Jon converted to a minimum-till practice to limit soil compaction and use of resources.
When the farm shifted to crops and away from livestock, Jon incorporated more no-till practices and began experimenting with the use of cover crops to manage nutrient absorption and soil erosion. The use of these practices made achieving the MAEAP verification simple.
“We were already doing as much as we could to prevent drift or nutrients leaving the soil like adding drift agents to spray and nitrogen stabilizers,” Jon says. “We never apply on frozen ground, and we soil-test every year. The only thing we had to do was get spill kits — which we should have anyway.”
NEW IDEAS: A former high school environmental science teacher, Josh Miller uses his education and continual learning to bring new ideas to his family farm.
Josh and his wife, Leyna, share the same commitment to the land and resources as Jon. Joining his parents in the past few years, Josh has brought new ideas and practices to the farm, such as the use of cover crops, based on his own education, experience and insights.
“I am always reading — blogs, articles, anything I can to learn what others are doing,” Josh says, pointing to his smartphone. “There’s always more to learn.”
The Millers recently have been working to find the best mix of cover crops to incorporate into their cropping management plan. Given the short window of planting time, cover crops can be more susceptible to the weather, which may require planting a different species than planned. They also like to run side-by-side comparisons to evaluate the use of different crops.
“After we take off the wheat, we want to go back in with a mix as quick as we can so that it has a chance for rain to get going,” Josh says. “On the corn, we will fly in rye into a standing field around Labor Day or no-till it in after harvest depending on the weather.”
Including winter wheat, the Millers use seven different species of cover crops depending on soil conditions and what they are hoping to achieve with the crop.
“We soil-test half the fields every year so that each field is tested every two years,” Jon says. “By testing. we know the condition of the soil and what we need to do. Some cover crops will be used to bind and tie up the nutrients, while others will add nutrients to the soil.”
In addition to controlling nutrients, the use of no-till and cover crops has lessened the soil compaction on the farm and created an environment rich with microorganisms.
“It is hard to measure soil health, but when it rains our fields soak up the moisture instead of the rain running off the field,” Josh says. “When we do dig through the profile, we see a lot of worms, which is an indication that the cover crop investment is improving our soil health.”
REPURPOSED: The Millers have repurposed bunker silos into machine storage and chemical containment.
Repurposing old facilities
The Millers used creativity to repurpose structures on the dairy farm to accommodate the increase in cropping. One bunker silo was fitted with a roof and turned into a machine storage unit, and another was partitioned off to store chemicals.
“The old bunker silos make a great containment area for fertilizer,” Jon says. “We poured the cement floor inside the bunker, and it works as a chemical containment area. We had this in place before we started the MAEAP verification process, so we did not have to add any chemical containment areas.”
Even though the Millers did not have to make any major improvements to their farm management to gain MAEAP verification, they are glad to be a part of the program.
“In reality, the process was not as bad as it can be perceived,” Jon says. “We found it useful to sit down and talk about our practices, know where our risks might be and identify areas that we may need to change.”
The assurance of the MAEAP verification also gives the Millers peace of mind should a complaint be leveraged against them. Having the MAEAP verification and sign in their yard reminds the Millers of the importance of good stewardship and conveys an important message to their neighbors.
“As farmers and producers, we need to do a better job talking about what we do,” Josh says. “We have to work to change some perceptions of what we are doing. Having the MAEAP verification helps to show that we are doing the right thing — not just by our standard, but by the state.”
Moser writes from Holt.