2020 Conservationists of the Year

Published 6:50 am Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Erosion on the Hamilton farm in central Mower County was taking soil from their cropland, altering the landscape and stealing nutrients they purchased to help grow corn and soybeans.

Facing these major, negative effects on their farm, Terry and Cindy Hamilton started looking into soil-health practices that have since saved the family business money through better nutrient management along with fuel and labor savings.

Farming more than 1,200 acres near Adams on a corn-soybean rotation, the Hamiltons started to use cover crops on their fields in 2012 and adopted the practice of strip-tillage that led them to see improved soil structure, fewer wet areas and faster infiltration of stormwater in their fields. With improved water management, the Hamiltons eventually found that they could farm areas that had been used as artificial waterways.

For their extensive soil-health practices and outreach efforts, the Hamilton family has been chosen as Mower County’s 2020 Conservationists of the Year by the Mower Soil & Water Conservation District’s Board of Supervisors.  

“The Hamiltons are a great family to work with and an excellent resource for others seeking to learn more about soil health,” said Steve Lawler, Mower SWCD’s soil scientist. “They truly care about the land and work very hard to become as educated as possible about soil health and the practices that support it.”

Lawler has worked extensively with the Hamilton family, who have allowed him and other soil scientists to set up research plots on their Marshall Township farm as part of a larger soil-health study by Mower SWCD and the University of Minnesota.

Usually in December, the Hamiltons and dozens of other farm families from across the state would have been recognized in person at the 84th annual convention of the Minnesota Association of Soil & Water Conservation Districts (MASWCD), but that was canceled due to the pandemic.

While other farmers have embarked on soil-health practices, the Hamiltons differ from most in that their transition began from the air by providing cover crop seeding for other farmers across southern Minnesota. The Hamiltons own Midwest Ag-Air, LLC, which performs agricultural services via plane.

As for their farm, Terry has worked his entire life on the family farm, which was purchased by his grandfather in the 1930s following the Great Depression. Cindy manages much of the operation’s bookkeeping and Terry and his son, Travis, handle most of the field operations.

“I love to watch things grow,” Terry said. “And I love to see the soil trying to do something. I always felt bad in the fall after taking off our crop, and there it sat. The earth wants to be covered – that’s why we have weeds.”

Cover cropping involves planting a second, unharvested crop in coordination with regular cash crops, such as corn and soybeans.

After cover crops, the Hamiltons started experimenting with tillage practices, switching to strip tillage in 2014 from a full-tillage system. Facing a tight labor situation, strip-tillage allowed the Hamiltons to reduce their labor by removing two to three passes per season while reducing fuel costs by a third to half. This improved the break-even financial point across the farm.

Adopting new soil health practices has come with some challenges, including what other farmers think about your operations.

Many farmers in the area have used conventional methods for decades and have been skeptical of new practices, Terry said, adding that they don’t know what to think about fields that appear to be full of undesirable vegetation rather than a black, clean-tilled field.

“You will need to find a new place to have coffee,” he joked.

For those looking to change their farm operation to improve soil health, Terry advises them to remove any preconceived notions about farming.

“At the beginning, most of the trouble was between my ears,” he said. “But once I connected with other farmers and resources, I was able to overcome any problems we encountered.”

They also have been more than willing to share with others their experiences and what they have learned about cover crops and soil health. The Hamiltons have opened their farm numerous times to host Mower SWCD soil-health tours, including for agricultural students from Riverland Community College.