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Remembering the master of the ‘livestock underground’Remembering the master of the ‘livestock underground’

No-till and cover crop guru Dave Brandt dies from injuries suffered in a car crash.

Jennifer Kiel

May 31, 2023

9 Slides

In talking with Dave Brandt about his huge gains in organic matter since incorporating no-till and cover crops — from virtually nonexistent to more than 8% — he looked at me and said, “You gotta see for yourself” and started heading for the door.

That was the first I met Dave in fall 2015 for an interview to feature him as a newly named 2016 Ohio Master Farmer, awarded in March of that year.

I quickly grabbed my camera and followed him to a Polaris utility vehicle. Away we went across the field, my feet flailing around on the floorboards while hanging on to the door as a shovel clanked around in the back. In the middle of a field, he stops and steps out. “We need an inspection on the crop below,” he said, while pulling up a shovel of dark dirt laden with tunnels and earthworms wiggling about.

He knew traditional crop management, with tillage, would be hard to stray from for some. He knew it took courage to change and he might be criticized or discounted, but he was nonetheless dedicated to not only telling the story, but also showing it.

He called it his “livestock underground.” Brandt believed in feeding the microbial activity in the soil that, in turn, would feed and benefit his crops. He cracked open new ways of thinking and understanding soil health, which led to innovative methods of farming he openly demonstrated and taught to as many people who would listen.

Related:In memoriam: Farewell to a regenerative ag rockstar

The agriculture community was recently shocked to learn of his passing.

Brandt, a national pioneer in regenerative farming who lived on his farm outside Carroll in Fairfield County, Ohio, died May 21 after suffering injuries in a traffic crash in Illinois. He was 76.

Illinois State Police officials said the crash happened May 18 on Interstate 74 near Farmer City. Brandt, they said, was driving east when for undisclosed reasons, he lost control of his truck, which rolled, and he was ejected. He was taken to Carle Hospital in Urbana, where he died from his injuries two days later.

Brandt also operated Walnut Creek Seeds, a cover crop seed business that he ran with his son, Jay, daughter-in-law, Ann, and grandsons, Chris and Isaac. Chris is focused on the farm and equipment operations, while Isaac is working with Ann in the seed business. They remain dedicated to continuing his work.

He was recognized across the globe, if not for his farming practices, it was for a statement he made during a Natural Resources Conservation Service event on his farm in 2012, which became a meme on Reddit a few years later. With denim overalls and a ball cap, the meme quotes him saying, “It ain’t much, but it’s honest work.” It’s still circling the internet.

In talking with many friends who recounted his impact, it was his unwavering need to teach, to share his experiences and to help others that overwhelmingly shined through.

Here are a few of their stories:

Randall Reeder

Education was at Brandt’s core, says Randall Reeder, an Extension agricultural engineer at Ohio State University from 1979 to 2011 and the executive director of the Ohio No-Till Council and program coordinator for the Conservation Tillage & Technology Conference.

“I’ve known him more than 30 years,” Reeder says. “In that time, I’ve organized a lot of conferences and field days and often invited Dave to speak. He always accepted and never charged, not even for travel.”

After a dust storm tragedy May 1 on I-55 in Illinois that killed seven motorists and involved about 75 vehicles, Don Reicosky and Reeder started writing an article listing bare, freshly tilled soil as a factor. Brandt was asked to provide a farmer view.

“Dave made sure we emphasized the need for education about no-till and cover crops instead of blaming farming,” Reeder says. “Farmer-to-farmer is the best education process. Farmers would rather learn from a successful farmer than a university professor. Dave Brandt was recognized nationally and internationally as a top example of how farming could and should be done. He was very human, likable, generous and had an infectious laugh. He won’t be forgotten.”

Jimmy Emmons

Jimmy Emmons, a farmer and rancher from Dewey County, Okla., in the little town of Leedy, farms about 2,000 acres of cropland and about 5,000 acres of rangeland with about 300 mother cows, while raising several crops — including cover crop seed.

“After hearing [Brandt] speak at a national conservation district meeting in New Orleans, it really inspired me to pursue cover crops and regenerative agriculture 13 years ago, and so I wanted to come back home and try to make it work in Oklahoma where most people didn't think it would.”

Brandt talked him through it and got him help from NRCS and others. And then the droughts of 2011 and 2012 took hold. “I thought it would be the death of me, and low and behold, we proved that we had more water where we had cover crops than where we didn’t,” Emmons recounts. “I knew I was on the right path, and we've never looked back. It's been a wonderful journey, and I’ve received a lot of different awards — it all stems back to Dave. Just one talk inspired me, and I'm not the first one he's been instrumental in making successful.”

Bill Richards

A farmer and the son of an Ohio farm equipment dealer, Bill Richards brought farming roots from Circleville, Ohio, to the position as chief of the Soil Conservation Service (SCS, now known as the NRCS) from 1990-93 under President George H.W. Bush. He was a proponent of “convincing” farmers to change rather than “making” them change contingent on conservation funding. Under his guidance, there was a huge leap in no-till acres, and U.S. charts show a dramatic dip in soil erosion.

After returning from his service, Richards, now 91, says Brandt got his attention, and he attended many of his field events. “He was doing what the Soil Conservation Service wanted him to do, and he was a dream, as far as the agency’s concerned,” he says. “If only we just had 3,000 people like him and — one in each county — showing people how to do it, not trying to tell them they had to do it. That's what it's going to take to really get it across the country.”

Jan Layman

Layman, whose been doing no-till for 45 years, is relatively new to using cover crops on his northwest Ohio farm in Kenton.

“Dave was so willing to share,” he says. “I get called the young farmer around here, but heck, I’m 62 — not young by any means. I am about 15 years younger than Dave, but he never treated those younger, or new to the idea, like a kid or anything … like you were dumb. He explained to you why things did what they did. The first question he always asked is what are you wanting to do — stop erosion, improve water infiltration or soil health?

“It's taken the agriculture industry a long time to realize soil is a living thing, and it takes a lot of interconnected things to make this system work. I’ve talked with him at length and asked a lot of questions. We had a lot of discussions. I don't know that I agreed with everything he did, but I agreed with a whole lot more of it than I disagreed with.”

Loran Steinlage

Brandt and Loran Steinlage, who farms about 1,000 acres in West Union, northeast Iowa, have taken turns visiting and speaking at each other’s field days for many years.

“In 2014, he came to our field event, and at the home farm of renowned American agronomist Norman Borlaug. They introduced him saying, ‘Here we stand on the home of the Green Revolution to introduce to you today the father of the brown revolution,’” recalls Steinlage, who was nominated that year for No-Till Innovator the Year. “Dave won that year, but like I tell others, losing to Dave Brandt ain’t exactly losing.”

Steinlage claimed that award in 2020, and in the past year, he was working with Brandt on an outreach project using both their farms to teach other growers. “I referred to it as his legacy project,” Steinlage says. “It was almost like he was starting to hand over the reins — starting to refer to several of us as ‘sons.’ He planted a seed. We're taking it and running with it. Everybody's talking about it now, but a year from now, we want people to remember and advance those steps. That’s our job now.”

Steinlage has had a little fun with the meme, keeping the picture and changing the words to say, “Norman Borlaug saved a lot of lives; Dave Brandt saved a lot of soil.”

Roger Wenning

Brandt was known for being very vocal, for speaking about his trials, successes and failures, too. But, while Roger Wenning’s friendship with Brandt started with talks about cover crops more than 20 years ago, it was the lesser-known “listening side” of him that touched Wenning, who farms in Greensburg, Ind.

Their friendship goes back many years. “He was one of the few farmers using cover crops back in the day, and I studied what he was doing and asked a lot of questions,” Wenning says.

Brandt talked him through the idea of planting hairy vetch, something Wenning describes as scary with stories of it taking over and wrapping up in the planter. But, with a lower rate and some grass, it was successful, allowing him to take advantage of its prolific root system and nitrogen boost.

Five years ago, that friendship and advice switched to a personal level as Wenning lost a grandson. “He had kind words for me, and we talked back and forth, often, even more after he lost his wife,” Wenning says. “Through my mental health struggles, he was a friend I could always count on. He had the ability to relate to people well beyond the farm gate. Maybe he tried to come off as a mean, gruff, old fart, but he was not. If someone was in need, or hurting like me, he was there — a top-shelf man.”

Steve Groff

Groff, a grower and no-till and cover crop pioneer himself, says he is planning to drive the six hours from his Lancaster County, Pa., farm to Brandt’s funeral. He considered Dave a friend. “He was a big man with a big handshake. A big man, but a harmless little fuzzball,” Groff says.

One of the things he says Brandt will be remembered for is his research on tillage radishes and his work on multispecies cover crops.

“He was part of the peer group that was trying to figure out what went together,” Groff adds.

But Brandt also was very opinionated and wasn’t afraid to challenge “the experts” on various cover crop and no-till topics. It may have turned off some academics or even other farmers, Groff says, but at the end of the day, “He just wanted other farmers to succeed. His mantra was, ‘Here’s how to make this work.’ That’s his legacy,” he says. “He was opinionated but always had a laugh with it. It’s a fine line where you can be opinionated, but people still love you. That was Dave Brandt. He was just a nice, farmer-friendly guy. He knew how to relate to his fellow farmers.”

Keith Dennis

Dennis farms 600 acres of highly erodible ground in Rushville, Perry County, Ohio, growing corn and beans, as well as rye and triticale cover crops.

“It takes some thinking and some studying, but Dave has proven, and I’ve proven on my own ground, that once you get your soil health back up through no-till and cover crops, you can prevent almost 90% of soil erosion,” Dennis says. “The improved soil health saves so much money in fertilizers and chemicals”

After attending one of Brandt’s field days, Dennis planted cover crops in 2011 and switched to complete no-till that spring. “2012 was a drought year, and I had 100-bushel corn with a severe drought after planting radishes,” he says. “Some of my neighbor farms didn't make 3 bushels that year. There’s a tremendous amount of wisdom that left this world when he passed.”

Bill Haddad

Bill Haddad’s relationship with Brandt started in the mid-1970s when he was working for Chevron Chemical, who along with Allis-Chalmers were leaders in promoting no-till practices. Brandt was one of about a dozen consultants who had some experience in no-till on their own farms and were hired by Chevron to help Ohio growers develop no-till and cover crop practices.

“Dave was very persistent, and an avid promoter of cover crops,” recalls Haddad, who also remembers a bit of stubbornness, mixed with ambition and a lot of innovation. “Sometimes he and I would argue whether it was rye, or hairy vetch or whatever, that worked best. We didn’t agree on everything, but we agreed that no-tillage was a real good option for many farmers.”

The making of a soil enthusiast

As a young man in high school, Dave Brandt helped his grandfather Earl Cooper on the farm, milking 24 cows, tending hogs and growing potatoes. He had plans to expand the farm after graduation, but Uncle Sam stepped in, put him in the Marines and sent him to Vietnam for 28 months — but not before he married his wife, Kendra. They had 54 years together before she succumbed to a multiyear battle with cancer in 2020.

As a veteran, Brandt returned to farm about 100 acres with family until his father was killed in a tractor accident. The farm was sold, and the assets were divided, but Brandt’s will to farm was not squashed. He and Kendra became tenant farmers on 640 acres and more than doubled the initial livestock on the farm to 200 cows and 200 sows.

During that time, he bought his grandfather’s 80 acres in 1971. It’s then he began putting the farm into no-till, while acquiring more land and rental ground while liquidating the livestock. He worked as a soil and water technician for Fairfield County, teaching farmers no-till practices.

“But after four years of no-till, we saw yields decline,” Brandt told Ohio Farmer during an interview in 2016 when he was awarded Ohio Farmer’s highest honor — Master Farmer. “We didn’t have equipment to go back into tillage, so we had to find a way to maintain yields without tillage.”

In 1978, Dave began using monoculture cover crops. For over 20 years, he stuck to single-species cover crops, planting rye, and if fields were going to corn, using hairy vetch or winter peas. He said soil health improved steadily every year.

But that wasn’t good enough.

In 1998, Brandt incorporated dual species of cover crops and then went even further into big blends.

Soil tests are done yearly to evaluate progress. “It’s a learning curve,” he said. “But you don’t want cover crops that flower, as the nutrients from the soil are used for reproduction. I talk about our failures and learn from what worked, but also what didn’t. We do a lot of research that is documented daily.”

Time spent on equipment was diverted to walking fields and looking at soil. “The change has been from using tractors and equipment to using the brain and eyes,” Brandt said.

The return is there. He said it’s common to see a 6- to 8-bushel yield bump with rye going into soybeans. “And it could lower herbicide costs because rye suppresses weeds; it has reduced ours by about 50%.”

In addition to row crops, Dave and Kendra, who was also an elementary school teacher, sold their homegrown produce at farmers markets for 15 years.

Dave, who served 14 years as the president of the Ohio No-Till Council, was the recipient of numerous awards for his conservation practices. In addition to being an Ohio Master Farmer, he was also honored as Ohio Agriculture's Man of the Year and the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation's Distinguished Service to Agriculture Award.

Jimmy Emmons, vice president of No-Till on the Plains, wanted to recognize people dedicated to soil health, and he instigated the creation of the “Dave Brandt Soil Health Legacy Award,” and presented the first honor to an unsuspecting Dave this past January.

It was a surprise, but Dave knew something was up when the whole family showed up. “We caught him off guard, but it was a distinct honor to give that award as a way for his legacy to live on,” Emmons adds. “Sadly, little did we know that was going to be so soon. They just don’t get any better than Dave.”

Celebration of life

service for family and friends will be from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. June 2 at Dwayne Spence Funeral Home, 650 W. Waterloo St., Canal Winchester, Ohio. A celebration of life will follow the next day, from 1 to 6 p.m. June 3, for friends, colleagues and farmers at the Brandt Farm, 6100 Basil Western Road in Carroll.

In the coming year, Brandt will be memorialized at various field day events and conferences within the sustainable agriculture community.

His obituary is available here.

Special thanks to Randall Reeder who helped line up the contacts for this story.

About the Author(s)

Jennifer Kiel

Editor, Michigan Farmer

While Jennifer is not a farmer and did not grow up on a farm, "I think you'd be hard pressed to find someone with more appreciation for the people who grow our food and fiber, live the lifestyles and practice the morals that bind many farm families," she says.

Before taking over as editor of Michigan Farmer in 2003, she served three years as the manager of communications and development for the American Farmland Trust Central Great Lakes Regional Office in Michigan and as director of communications with Michigan Agri-Business Association. Previously, she was the communications manager at Michigan Farm Bureau's state headquarters. She also lists 10 years of experience at six different daily and weekly Michigan newspapers on her impressive resume.

Jennifer lives in St. Johns with her two daughters, Elizabeth, 19, and Emily 16.

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