Reflections on a regenerative farm field day in Nebraska

By: Jane Coghlan, Swette Center Food Systems Specialist.

It was an overcast day in mid-July when I turned onto the gravel road leading me to the Grain Place Farm in central Nebraska. As I turned, I slowed down to take notice of the familiar sign that reads: “How your food is produced does matter.” On this special day, there was a field day being hosted on the farm to invite the public to learn about their farming methods. Attendees also had the opportunity to take a tour of their grain processing facility, have lunch prepared by Indigenous chef Anthony Warrior, and hear from guest speakers Paul Schiefer from Amy’s Kitchen and Kellee James from Mercaris. A large and diverse crowd gathered on the farm which was composed of farmers, researchers, artists, foodies, local community members, and lots of others from various backgrounds. Despite their differences, they all had one thing in common: an interest in the connection between agriculture and planetary health. 

Although the Grain Place Farm grows corn and soybeans, it is not your typical conventional farm. The crops they grow are nutritious, sustainable, and produced for human consumption, rather than for livestock feed or fuel. The Grain Place Farm was one of the first organic farms in the country; they began adopting organic farming methods in 1953 and became organic certified in 1978. To give you an idea of how unique their operation is, according to the USDA, only 0.17% of soybeans and 0.26% of corn planted in 2011 were organic. Although the organic industry has grown substantially since then, the Grain Place Farm still stands out as a leader in the transition to a more sustainable food and agricultural system. 

The number one objective of the Grain Place Farm is to continually improve the quality and health of the soil. However, in its very nature, farming is a disturbance to soils that compromises their objective. With that in mind, their goal is to develop a system that makes that compromise as small as possible while they maintain the ability to make a living on the farm and allow the soil to recover and improve naturally. Their agricultural practices are what is now commonly being referred to as “regenerative-organic agriculture” or “climate-smart agriculture.” Regenerative-organic agriculture is an increasingly popular term coined by the Rodale Institute that describes a method of farming that focuses on continually improving soil health to enrich the ecosystem of the farm and sequester carbon with the intention of mitigating climate change. On the other hand, the definition of climate-smart agriculture puts more emphasis on the connection between agriculture and climate change. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), this method of farming has “three main objectives: sustainably increasing agricultural productivity and incomes; adapting and building resilience to climate change; and reducing and/or removing greenhouse gas emissions, where possible.”

Corn and soybeans are not the only crops growing on the Grain Place Farm. They have a one of a kind 9-year rotation incorporating 18 fields spread across 280 acres. Their main crops are corn, popcorn, soybeans, and barley, however they also plant cover crops to create pastures on the fields that they rotationally graze with cattle. Additionally, they have rows of trees around the border of the farm and in between their fields to prevent pesticide drift from neighboring farms and increase biodiversity.

As David Vetter, the leader of the Grain Place, gave a tour of the farm, he explained their new experiments in corn planting density and interseeding cover crops into corn. Nebraska’s Natural Resources Districts came to the farm with a no-till drill and interseeded between the corn on their test plot. They made sure to get the cover crops planted early enough to germinate before the corn was tall enough to shade the ground. Ideally, this timing ensures that the cover crop will not negatively impact the corn yield. There are many benefits to interseeding such as nitrogen fixation, weed suppression, and erosion control. Vetter emphasized that farming is a constant experiment in its nature, however they are also constantly conducting intentional experiments in an effort to improve the efficiency and sustainability of their farm. For example, last year, they experimented with their hog production by comparing the outcomes of putting the hogs on pasture versus in a traditional dry-lot. 

I had the opportunity to be an intern on this farm during the summers of 2019 and 2020. Those experiences completely altered the course of my studies and career. I changed my major to Sustainable Food Systems and began working as a student worker for the Swette Center. Now, I am a full-time Food Systems Research Specialist for the Center and I am also a member of the Grain Place Foundation Board which oversees operations and directs the work of the farm to ensure its success and commitment to sustainability. 

At the field day, I had the privilege as a board member to give a legislative update to the attendees to remind them that they are part of a movement much bigger than themselves. I chose to inform the audience about the upcoming 2023 Farm Bill, Secretary Vilsack’s recent Food System Transformation Framework, and the new USDA Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities Program. After sharing these hopeful updates, I reminded everyone that there is still a lot of work to be done on the Hill to transform the food system. To encourage them to get their voices heard, I provided the link to the House Ag Committee Farm Bill Review form which asks for feedback from the public about their opinions on the 2018 farm bill and the upcoming 2023 farm bill. 

The Grain Place field day was a beautiful representation of the importance of sharing ideas with your community to inspire others and create change. In addition to hosting this event annually, the Grain Place also has its own documentary, Dreaming of a Vetter World, to further their outreach and influence. Transitioning to more sustainable agricultural practices can understandably seem like an intimidating endeavor for conventional farmers, but the Grain Place Farm is proof that it can be done. Not only can it be done, but it needs to be done to cultivate an agricultural system that thrives along with our planet. As the Grain Place has been saying for years: “How your food is produced does matter.”