Chris Kurt likes to go fishing on Lake Erie. He’s heard the frustration from boat captains concerning the algal bloom, which NASA can now see from space. “I feel their pain even though it’s not hitting my wallet,” he says. “But, it does hit my wallet when I don’t keep my nutrients on the field. Fertilizer costs money, and it’s our job as farmers to protect the water and prevent nutrients from washing away. It’s in everyone’s best interest.”
Chris, a fifth-generation farmer, believes conservation is about doing what’s right for the environment, and he has implemented several practices on his 470-acre farm in Kenton, Hardin County, Ohio. He farms alongside his semiretired father, Robert, who is 73. The family is being recognized as a 2019 Ohio Conservation Farm Family of the Year award winner.
The Kurt family settled the first 80-acre farm in 1883. Today, they are farming 470 tillable acres, raising corn and soybeans. Starting with no-till soybeans 25 years ago, now most beans are no-tilled, and corn is headed that direction. “Last year was the first year we no-tilled some corn,” he says. “It was a perfect year, which has encouraged me to plant more.”
For three years, about a third of the farm has been seeded with cover crops; and this year, all of Chris’ 135 acres of prevented-plant ground has a cover crop.
2-stage ditch project
In 2014, Kurt Farms worked with the Hardin Soil and Water Conservation District and The Nature Conservancy to install a half-mile, two-stage ditch, which carries a normal flow of water, as well as a high flow on benches planted with vegetation. This allows the ditch to carry more volume, which slows the water down. “By doing that, it gives time for nutrients to absorb,” Chris says, who notes that tests have shown less nutrient runoff. “Also, experts found species of fish that they did not expect to find because of cleaner water,” he adds.
The project was the focus of two large field days in 2015-16, and it led to Kurt Farms being a part of a larger conservation project.
A partnership was formed with USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and Ohio Farm Bureau in 2015 to begin the Blanchard River Demonstration Farms Network. Kurt Farms was selected as one of three farms in the project, which demonstrates conservation practices to farmers, serves to educate the public about water quality issues, and collects scientific data about the effects of different farming practices.
Close to 2,000 people have visited the demonstration farms, including several members of the media, the Ohio Department of Agriculture Director Dorothy Pelanda, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) and Toledo Rotary.
“It’s important for people to know what farmers are doing to improve and protect water quality,” Chris says. “One of the reasons I said yes to the project is because they are testing the water. So, I’m doing different practices in different places, and they are comparing two different sites. On one side could be conventional tillage corn, while the other side of the ditch is no-till corn. They are testing the water, both above-surface drainage and underground drainage to see what the differences are.”
The first two years were used to collect baseline data, with no changes. Last year was the first time different practices were implemented. So, the data are inconclusive at this point. “All I’ve heard so far is the amount of phosphorus coming off my farm was very low,” he says.
A mix of conservation practices
Other conservation practices on the farm include filter strips, grass waterways, equipment-crossing and drainage-control structures that stop water from draining off the field when it’s necessary.
The farm has John Mueller, Ohio Department of Natural Resources forester, evaluate its 13 acres of woodlots, and Mueller has assisted in picking the appropriate trees to harvest at the right time.
Chris uses precision nutrient management, including zone soil sampling and variable rate application. Four years ago, with cost assistance from the USDA Environmental Quality Incentives Program, he implemented a blind inlet to drain water quickly. “In the past, French drains were used as an easy fix, but nutrients were going right into the tile,” he says. “A blind inlet has tile at the bottom, covered with coarser materials and soil. It still drains quickly, but it also provides a filter.”
And, with a grant from The Nature Conservancy in 2016, two phosphorus removal beds — one surface and one subsurface — were installed and use aggregate to grab phosphorus out of the water.
Chris always wanted to be a farmer, but the path was a little curvy. He was an ag teacher for nine years in Wauseon High School, which allowed him to buy his first farm.
“I took a year off to get my MBA; and while I was doing that, another farm came up for sale,” he says. “I went to my bank, asked to borrow money, and they asked what I was going to do for a job. And, then they asked if I wanted to come work for them.”
So, he became an ag banker, then the ag banking manager, and just a few months ago, accepted a position as president of the local bank. “I’m grateful that my position is a bit flexible,” says Chris, who makes most of the farming decisions but works alongside his dad. “Sometimes, things just fall in place.”
The career change has led to him moving from Bowling Green to a home in Kenton by the farm.
The future direction of the farm includes more no-till acres and more tours to showcase conservation. “It benefits growers, but it also impacts activists, who might be critical of farming,” he says.
“They have come away knowing farmers are trying to help with the water quality issue. It’s my hope they know farmers care about the environment just as much as anyone else; it’s in our best interest. And, the research we’re gaining from different practices is going to help us better understand which ones are most effective.”
The Kurt family
The family. Chris Kurt is the father of three sons: Ivan, 21, Cohen, 13, and Caleb, 8. Chris farms with his parents, Robert and Sandy, in Kenton, Ohio.
The farm. The Kurts farm 470 acres in Hardin County, raising corn, soybeans and assorted cover crops. The Kurts received a U.S. flag flown over the U.S. Capitol from Rep. Marcy Kaptur for conservation excellence, and Kurt Farms was named the 2018 Hardin County Cooperator of the Year.
Nominator. Kathy Bush, Hardin Soil and Water Conservation District administrator; and the SWCD board
Outreach and education. Kurt Farms uses several conservation practices and has hosted two field days to showcase a two-stage ditch. Through a partnership with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and Ohio Farm Bureau, Kurt Farms became part of the Blanchard River Demonstration Farms Network to educate on conservation practices. The farm has been the site of dozens of tours, trips and demonstrations for farm groups, community groups, members of the press, school and college groups, and political representatives.
Community activities. Chris Kurt is a member of Hardin County Farm Bureau, Kenton Rotary and the Demonstration Farm Network. He is an executive committee member of Farm to Table with the American Heart Association.