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Serving: IL

Putting soil back to work

Slideshow: With a mix of microbes and fungi, one Illinois farm family is aiming to grow high-quality, nutrient-dense grain.

Is Jeff Martin a farmer or a microbiologist?

The answer is yes: He’s a farmer with a microscope and a box of pipettes on his desk next to the adding machine. Look in his truck, and you’ll find a refractometer next to the wrenches. He handles a shovel and a microscope slide with equal familiarity. And he all but retired from farming once — before the fascination of its microbiology lured him back in.

Sure enough, just ask Martin about his soil structure and the biology that’s happening beneath the surface,and his eyes light up, with the zeal of a man who’s found a new way to farm. In a lot of ways, he has.

He and sons Doug and Derek have transformed nearly every acre of their multigenerational farm near Mount Pulaski, Ill., with near-fervent management of nutrients, biologicals and cover crops. Their goal is to improve soil structure and grow healthier crops, while maintaining yield and cutting input costs. And yes, situated near the geographic center of Illinois, they farm some of the best soils in the world, but they’re also making this system work commercially on several thousand acres — far more than an experiment or a hobby.

“Besides making more money, I really hope we’ll have better-yielding crops,” Martin says. “But for sure, we’ll have better-quality crops, and I think we’re going to get a premium for that.” He points to Indigo Ag and coming technology that will compare nutrient density in grain — and enable farmers to be paid for it because it’ll be better for livestock. 

In the beginning

The Martins started working with biologicals four years ago, saw a little yield bump, then went “full-steam” in 2018, working with Brad Hobrock at AgriBio Systems. In 2019, they used AgriBio’s entire system on nearly all of their acres. That means every farm gets AgriBio’s BioMax in-furrow at planting, and they apply nutrients as needed to get soil in balance. In the fall, they broadcast-apply BioMax on as many farms as weather allows.

They’re treating each field as an individual to figure out what it needs. “We look at drainage, soil test and past yield history to determine what to apply,” Martin says.

They’re also phasing out any product that kills fungi and bacteria in the soil — think fungicides and seed treatments, none of which they used in 2019. And their yields held up.

Martin knows that sounds a little crazy. “I know a lot of people use fungicides, and they swear by it. It does increase yields, but only sometimes,” he says. He has a theory based on what he’s seen: If soil and plant are healthy, the plant will resist insects because those insects can sense which crops are weak or have too much nitrogen.

“We think if we get our soil healthy and our plant healthy, the plant will naturally take care of itself,” Martin explains, adding it’s the same thing with weeds that won’t grow in healthy soil. “It sounds crazy. It sounds like stuff I never believed in at all. But I think it really can happen.”

Microbiology 101

Microbes themselves are simply bacteria and fungi that you’ll never see with the naked eye but that come alive under microscopes. The problem, Martin says, is that he and his sons spent decades destroying microbes by applying synthetic fertilizers and chemicals such as glyphosate. He says when the plant becomes dependent on synthetic fertilizers, microbes shut down because the plant doesn’t need them anymore.

“We have been destroying our soil health over the last 40 or 50 years through salts and fertilizers, through anhydrous, through N-Serve,” Martin describes. And while they once used Roundup “for everything,” they’re phasing it out, too. Martin says for corn and soybeans, the bacteria-to-fungi ratio should be 1-to-1, yet they were seeing ratios of 100-to-1. That means they needed to bring the fungi ratio back into balance.

How to do that? Manufacture microbes right on the farm — using the BioMax solution — and put microbes back in the soil. Now in their second year of putting microbes back, they’re seeing the difference both in soil structure and under the microscope.

They’re applying 3 gallons per acre of BioMax in the fall, which has more than 4,000 microbes and fungi in it. In the spring, they apply in-furrow with the planter, putting on 3 gallons per acre of BioMax and two food sources, Advanced Guard and BioRedux. Those applications result in visibly better roots, but you can’t apply when it gets too cold because it will kill the microbes. Martin says you can’t apply it with any product such as chemicals or fertilizers because it would kill the microbes.  

AgriBio also makes a bacteria product that can be applied with chemical, and the Martins use it on their second chemical pass. They also use AgriBio’s powder fungi, treating it like a talc product they put directly on the seed. 

And despite tough planting conditions, they use cover crops as a food source for microbes because their biggest yield increases have come from using biologicals in conjunction with cover crops. 

A longtime no-till advocate, Martin uses as little tillage as possible. “Try to cut back on the things that are killing the microbes, like salts and fertilizers,” he adds. And while they haven’t completely cut out anhydrous, they are phasing it down. Where they used to apply 200 pounds, then 180, last year they put on just 120. They applied some 28% N with their burndown pass, with humic acid to stabilize it.

Two years ago, they applied 28% on top in the fall and compared that versus anhydrous, on a field that had been in the AgriBio system for six years. They discovered that the better soil structure held the 28% instead of letting it leach through.

What does all this cost? Martin says they’re spending $30 to $50 an acre on the entire system. They’ve cut nitrogen inputs by 40%, from $90 an acre to about $60. They’re experimenting with phosphorus and potassium rates but not cutting them out completely.

Back to yield

Originally, the Martins hoped to maintain yield, grow a healthier product and save on expenses. They were even willing to take a little bit less on yield while increasing per-acre profit. But they’ve been pleasantly surprised.

“We’ve done a lot of testing, talked to neighbors, compared a lot,” Martin says. “So far, our yields are holding up.”

He also knows it’s a tough sell for farmers who don’t like large-scale change, and success requires a systemic change. The system won’t work if you still use salt-based fertilizer and anhydrous, and till and chisel. But change is possible, and he’s proving it on a large scale.

“We feel like we’re on the right track, and we’re doing something that’s scary,” he concedes. “Margins are pretty thin, and we can’t afford to screw up and have 30 or 40 bushels less than the neighbor’s corn.”

Still, at the end of the day, bringing their soil back to life is worth it to the entire Martin family. Activate microbes. Put soil back to work. Get healthier soil, more nutrient-dense grain, healthier people and more dollars in everyone’s pockets.

“That’s the foundation of what we’re doing,” Martin concludes.

TAGS: Crops
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