Winona County field day shows the hype is real for cover crops
People traveled from five different states to an Aug. 10 soil health field day held by the Winona County Soil and Water Conservation District and Unruh Cover Cropping.
WINONA, Minnesota ― Lance Klessig knows if he builds a soil health outing, they will come.
That case was proven earlier this month when nearly 250 people, ranging from five different states, piled onto a farm in Winona County for a field day with multiple demonstrations of cover cropping techniques.
Klessig, a resource specialist for Winona County Soil and Water Conservation District, is a popular contact for producers in Southeast Minnesota looking to implement more sustainable practices on their farms. Klessig's YouTube channel , which has a video with over 67,000 views, has made him known across the Midwest.
Klessig and the Winona County Soil and Water Conservation District put on the event on Aug. 10 with help from several other organizations, including Unruh Cover Cropping and Rantizo. The field day was held at the farm of father-son farmers and entrepreneurs, Dave and Mike Unruh, who run a custom harvesting business, sell seed and custom plant cover crops and forages.
"There's farmers from three to four hours in every direction that are here," said Klessig on Aug. 10. "A lot of farmers that are definitely using cover crops — and some that are just starting out."
Along with producers, the crowd also consisted of representatives from different conservation districts, seed reps and local implement dealers.
"It's not just farmers, not at all," he said.
One demonstration was of live seeding cover crops into a soybean field with a drone, done by the manufacturer Rantizo.
"We got to see firsthand a drone seed cover crops," said Klessig, who believed there to be attendees from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota at the evening event.
Another station was seeing a modified corn detasseler in action, which was converted into a highboy seeder by farmer Joe Lawler. He explained the process of turning the detasseler to a seeder, then drove it into corn and put on a cover crop mix of about 60 pounds.
Klessig, who is often joined by his wife and five children at field days, was not the only one with his whole family there on Aug. 10. Not long after Lawler's machine passed through the corn, children were laughing and running through the same rows.
"I knew that would happen," he said, as his daughter's head poked out from the stalks. "That's why I told him another pass through wouldn't be possible."
Sitting on the steps of the machine which displayed a "Let's Stop Treating Our Soil Like Dirt" bumper sticker, Lawler spoke to the crowd which wanted to ask more questions after seeing it demonstrated.
The third demonstration was a roller crimping education from Mike Unruh and Sheldon Luehman, who farms in Lewiston, Minnesota, where he's converted to no-till planting and incorporated cover crops on nearly all of his 500 acres. The two explained to an intrigued audience how they no-tilled soybeans into rye, then terminated the cover through roller-crimping a couple weeks later.
Léa Vereecke, an organic consultant for the Rodale Institute, also took part in the session. Klessig said it worked well to have a research expert next to the young farmers who've been innovative with their methods.
For attendees with little knowledge of cover cropping before the event, Klessig hopes they left knowing that the practice really works.
"So we want to use different tools to make (cover crops) even more successful," he said. "So that's roller crimping, or drones — and being willing to think outside the box and innovate."
Klessig's connections stretch much farther than Southeast Minnesota, but the Aug. 10 turnout was sort of a surprise to him. The event was the biggest he'd ever put on.
"Two years ago I did (a field day), and we got 150 people," he said. "It's definitely growing."
Jason Goux and Andrea Gerasimo drove about 70 miles to get to the field day in rural Winona County, intent on learning something they could bring back to the Gerasimo family's operation in Menomonie, Wisconsin.
"We're not certified organic, but we've been using organic practices since we bought it 50 years ago," she said of the operation owned by her brother-in-law.
Her family's farm has 400 acres — a lot of which is woodlands — and raises grass-fed beef. There are about 100 acres or so that are suitable for crops to grow, so she wanted to learn more about the techniques shown at the Aug. 10 outing.
Goux, who works for Compeer Financial, said he wanted to gain a real-life understanding of cover cropping through the event.
"We're trying to just discover what the benefits and real value of cover cropping and no-tilling has," said Goux, who has done countless land evaluations and assessments on operations looking to get financing. "I've been reading a lot about cover crops, and you can read everything — but to come out and see it, with people asking questions, there's no substitute."