David Brandt

Salvation in the Soil

Behind his farm’s machine shed, a crowd peers into a knee-deep trench, the soil mounded beside it. Among the onlookers is David White, chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the $4 billion federal agency with 12,000 employees that grew in response to Dust Bowl-era land depletion.

“Our people go ga-ga over the chance to meet Dave Brandt,” he said.

“They think he’s Obi-Wan Kenobi.”

He called Brandt’s Fairfield County farm the “epicenter” of an effort to answer a question that looms as a growing world population consumes more resources and more food.

“How are we going to do that and still have clean air and clean water and abundant wildlife?”

To that end, Brandt, the firmly down-to-earth Ohio Farm Bureau member, has pulled back the sod to expose his soil for what he believes it is.

As White sees it: “We could be on the verge of a second Green Revolution.”

More with less
Brandt had just bought his farm when scientific advances dubbed the Green Revolution were starting to unfold in the early 1970s. Improved seeds, intensively cultivated, responded better to fertilizer, produced higher yields and were credited with saving billions from starvation.

But that model of more challenged Brandt who, as a young farmer, was stretched for labor and capital. So much so, he forwent plowing his fields altogether.

“We had to make it work because we didn’t have the ability to do tillage,” Brandt recalled.

The path he followed would take him down earthworm holes and through radish fields, planting crops by airplane and opening the earth for scores of curious visitors. It’s no wonder some neighbors watched with skepticism.

But Brandt is now attracting more attention as he unravels the method to the mishmash of unfamiliar vegetation that surrounds his farmhouse.

Plants do the work
A clue to Brandt’s approach comes in a joke he makes about his $300,000 gray and black combine—“the most worthless piece of equipment that I have.”

“I’ve only figured out how to make it do one thing,” he laughed.

His planter, however, rarely rests. That’s because he’s always seeding and reseeding his ground. If he’s not planting corn, soybeans, wheat and vegetables to be harvested, he’s planting fields of sorghum, rye, hairy vetch, sunflowers and other “cover crops” to do his farm work.

For example, in one field, the tops of white radishes erupt through the soil. Instead of a plow, he relies on their forearm-sized roots to break up the ground before they decompose. Along with additional cover crops, this adds nutrients and organic matter, promotes earthworms and other beneficial organisms and disrupts pest and disease cycles.

During a recent field demonstration, 400 people gathered to watch an airplane scatter cover crop seeds into a field of soybeans, an attempt at more efficient planting.

With plants essentially tilling his fields and applying his fertilizer, Brandt is putting a lot less fuel in his tractor. He’s less worried about soil and nutrients running off into streams. And the number-crunching farmer says there is less money leaving his pocket as more grain fills his bins.

But even he had his doubts along the way.

Field research
“Every year is different,” said Brandt, describing his hand-wringing when he’d see neighbors’ crops doing a little better than his.

But he found a partner in Rafiq Islam, an Ohio State University soil scientist who has been measuring the results of Brandt’s nearly 40-year aversion to pulling a plow across his 1,100 acres. As part of his study, Islam recently took 300 soil samples from one of Brandt’s fields.

“In some areas in his field, the organic matter is 7.6 percent, which is abnormally high in Ohio,” Islam said. (That’s a good thing, because the need for additional fertilizer can be reduced or eliminated and the soil is in better condition to grow food.)

This partnership not only helps Brandt make decisions, it gives the university a life-sized laboratory. Brandt frequently hosts field days on his farm, and Islam has asked Brandt to travel the country with him as he shares his findings.

“He’s an asset,” Islam emphasized.

Helping others
Whether Brandt’s approach has been looked upon as agricultural heroism or heresy or something in between seems to matter little to the farmer who simply saw his soil as his only path to lowering costs and increasing his returns.

Now, as farmers across Ohio seek their next steps in sustainable food production, Brandt hopes his experience will help.

His willingness to open his farm is part of the reason why Ohio Farmer magazine named Brandt Ohio agriculture’s “Person of the Year” in 2011.

“I have a whole collection of photos of Dave Brandt’s hands digging through the soil or pulling apart root systems to show me what his cover crops have done to build the soil on his farm,” said editor Tim White, who has written about Brandt for years.

And while Brandt speaks with the pragmatism of a man who is earning a living from the land, White offered this context: “So much life passes through a farmer’s hands and through his fields. When Dave says he wants to leave the farm a better place than it was when he started, it is the quality of the soil he holds in his hands that he is talking about.”

Attention teachers and parents: See how this story connects to Ohio’s academic content standards.