By Dean Houghton
Grant Norwood grows 3,000 acres of crops in Henry County, Tennessee, but he spends some of his valuable management time working on ways to help bees and butterflies. “We are participating in the Farm Service Agency’s CP42 pollinator program,” he says, designed to restore habitat for ecologically and economically significant pollinator species.
“These insects truly are our friends, they help pollinate nearly everything around us,” Grant continues. “We were glad to find a way to help them out by devoting some of our less productive acres to pollinator-friendly plants.”
History of innovation
Going the extra mile for conservation has been the order of the day for Norwood Farms—all the way back to the late 1800s, when Grant’s great-great-grandfather began farming from his log cabin in the Pleasant Hill community near Mansfield, Tenn. “Our family has been fortunate enough to continue to own and farm this land since that time,” Grant says.
Grant, the fifth generation, is taking over the reins from his father, Don, who remains a partner and active participant in the farming operation. It was Don who, like generations of the Norwood family before him, passed down the importance of conservation in managing the family land.
The fertile loess soils of Henry County are productive, but the rolling landscape is vulnerable to erosion. Under Don’s leadership, the farm began to install water and sediment control basins—called WASCBs in soil conservation lingo—along with other land practices such as grade control structures and grassed waterways. “We have now built more than 125 WASCBs,” Grant says. “We have done this since I was a little boy. It has become second nature to know how to build and maintain these structures.”
Grant also grew up with the practice of no-till, which his grandfather first introduced to Norwood Farms. Under Grant’s helm, the farm is 100% no-till in its soybean, corn, and wheat rotation. After returning to the farm following his college graduation, Grant soon took the next step by incorporating cover crops. Much of his focus over the past decade has been placed on dialing in the right mixtures of cover-crop species to meet his goals for the following crop.
“Cover crops are used on all acres that do not have winter wheat produced on them,” Grant says. “Even though wheat is grown for harvest, it provides cover during the winter months. We use a cover crop blend on the remaining acres, trying to match it to the next crop in the rotation. For corn, we use cover crop mixes that fix nitrogen; for soybeans, we may emphasize a blend that provides better weed suppression. We just tweak the cover crop blend to match up with the needs of the following crop.”
Norwood Farms started out simple with cover crops, using primarily cereal rye and oilseed radish. Now the farm often uses a five-way mix of species that includes radishes, cereal rye, crimson clover, spring oats, and wheat. The farm also experiments with other species, such as turnips, canola, and winter pea. “The bottom line is that we play with the mix depending on what we think the soil needs on a field-by-field basis,” Grant says.
He ticks off a list of benefits that have resulted from the farm’s commitment to cover crops: Erosion control, improved water-holding capacity, a boost in wildlife habitat, and protection for water quality. “We have a healthy earthworm population, which indicates good soil health,” Grant adds. “We think cover crops are providing a real benefit under the ground by stimulating soil microbes, although that is something we cannot see with the naked eye.”
The biggest challenge in growing cover crops has been getting them seeded in a timely fashion. “One of our ‘go-to’ methods is putting out a lot of cover crops with an airplane,” Grant says. “It’s sometimes tricky hitting the timing just right. We have also used a spreader truck to broadcast seed.” The farm recently experimented with a broadcast seeder attached to a vertical tillage (Turbo-Till) unit. “We are still trying to figure out the most feasible way to get over the all the ground while also getting a good stand,” he says.
Starts with soil
Another benefit of cover crops has been a slow but steady increase in organic matter content of the soil, as measured by a regular soil-sampling program. “The farm has used 2.5-acre grid soil sampling for nearly a decade,” Grant says. “We own soil sampling equipment, and we take samples every two years following the soybean crop. We use software to collect soil sample data and write nutrient management prescriptions for fertilizer, lime, and minor elements.” The farm also uses variable-rate seeding on all corn acres, based on the soil samples along with yield data to determine rates.
Norwood Farms also keeps a close eye on compaction, eliminating as many trips over the ground as possible. The farm has eliminated a sidedressing pass by applying all nitrogen with the planter, injecting 32% solution at a depth of 3 inches, with the knife set 6 inches off the row.
“We’re saving a trip across the field putting our nitrogen down all at one time; with the planter we are always keeping that nitrogen a consistent 6 inches off the row,” Grant says. “Putting N on with the planter obviously slows planting down somewhat. But we run two planters at virtually the same cost as a planter and a sidedress toolbar, allowing us to maximize the acres we can plant in a day.”
The farm also goes the extra mile to be efficient and environmentally friendly. The grain storage site, for example, uses three-phase electricity. “We have found this to be a more efficient way of powering this facility,” Grant says. The facility also uses a grain management system (IntelliFarms Bin Manager), which monitors temperature and moisture in the bins when grain is present. “It maximizes the cooling and drying of the grain, reducing the energy because fans are only used when conditions are optimum to do the job.”
The family also became increasingly concerned about the amount of garbage it was sending to the landfill each year. “We contacted the county recycling center and set up weekly pick-ups at our farm.”
Norwood Farms installed a bin to collect recyclable material; seed bags, cardboard, and triple-rinsed chemical jugs are the primary items collected. The bin also serves as a drop-off location for neighbors. “This effort has reduced the amount of trash by more than 50%,” Grant says.
Weaving the future
“Our family’s focus on sustainability from one generation to the next is how we have been able to continue to farm the same land for five generations,” Grant says. “The economics of being a good steward of the soil is something that is slower to pay back than most other things. But it will pay back over time. You have to have a long-term mindset, but the economic benefits will carry over to benefit future generations.”