This growing season marks John Boen’s 76th crop year in northwestern Otter Tail County, Minn.
Today, he and his grandson, Andy Boen, make a good team as they continue to farm the family land about seven miles west of Pelican Rapids.
And while John did adopt the many changes in farming practices over the decades, his strong commitment to conservation farming has not changed.
Twice the West Otter Tail Soil and Water Conservation District selected John Boen as its Conservationist of the Year. Continued decisions of this grandfather–grandson team to be conservation farmers have now brought them the achievement of another award — completion of the Minnesota Ag Water Quality Certification Program (MAWQCP).
The Boens’ farming operation joins more than 1,050 producers and 750,000 acres have been water quality-certified in the state’s unique program, which recognizes farmers’ efforts to protect the state’s water quality.
When John started farming in the mid-1940s, one of his first conservation steps was to buy a one-way plow.
“I used this one-way plow to fill in the eroded gullies that had formed before I began to farm this ground,” he says. The ground is rolling farmland with moderate to steep slopes. “Year by year, I pulled the one-way plow to gradually close up the gullies.”
At the same time, he introduced new conservation practices on his land which greatly reduced soil erosion, prevented gullies from re-forming, and kept soil sediment from entering streams and lakes.
John was one of the first in his neighborhood to plant his row crops on level lines across the hillsides — contour farming — to keep the soil in place, rather than planting up and down the hill.
“I also practiced contour strip-cropping for a time,” he says, “in which alternating strips of corn, oats and alfalfa were planted on the contour across the hillsides.”
And in a major effort to prevent gullies from re-forming, John installed 23 water and sediment-control basins on his fields. These small dams temporarily retain the water concentrated in drainageways and prevent it from rushing down the hill and causing gully erosion.
Instead, the captured water is slowly released through a designed outlet pipe. Today, these basins continue to reduce soil erosion on the Boen farmland and prevent the re-forming of the erosion gullies that John worked so hard to fill.
To further protect the soil and water, John and Andy practice conservation tillage on their row crop operation. They grow wheat, corn and soybeans.
“We’ve made changes in the type of fall tillage equipment that we use,” Andy says. “On our soybean stubble and wheat stubble, we are now using a chisel plow with straight points or spikes instead of twisted points. This implement disturbs the soil less and leaves more stubble on the soil surface, which reduces erosion. On our very steepest slopes — we leave them in grass.”
Andy continues his grandfather’s legacy of conservation farming and brings his interest in technology to their farming operation — technology that enables the Boens to apply crop nutrients and crop protection products in ways that best protect Minnesota’s water. The Boens use nozzle shutoffs on their sprayer and GPS autosteer on their tractors, and they employ the Climate FieldView app to help manage their crop fields.
In their efforts to best manage nitrogen fertilizer and prevent its loss to water sources, they split their applications of this nutrient, using Y-drop applicators to sidedress nitrogen when the corn most needs it. The Boens’ use of tissue sampling gives them the ability to monitor the nutrient availability in their crops. They also apply a slow-release form of nitrogen, ESN, to provide nitrogen when the corn and wheat need this nutrient. These steps increase the availability of nitrogen to their crops and reduce the risk of nitrogen being lost to the environment.
The long legacy of conservation farming on the Boen farmland continues, as John and Andy use this system of conservation practices to protect their land as well the nearby lakes, streams and the groundwater.
In the Boens’ words: “Our goal is to continue to evolve and adapt conservation-related practices that will not only benefit soil and water health and provide wildlife habitat, but will also produce healthy crops for human consumption and farmland sustainability for generations to come.”
Lahn is a certification specialist with the North Central Minnesota MAWQCP. Paula Mohr contributed to this report.