Shiawassee Conservation District
Larry Lee owns and operates his family’s farmstead – established July 10, 1861 – with his wife Annette (a fifth generation farmer), Aaron and Amanda (Lee) Berndt, and Joshua Lee (sixth generation), and Rylee Berndt (seventh generation). Larry serves as the treasurer on the Shiawassee Conservation District Board of Directors and has been a member of the board since 1993. His family has worked with the Shiawassee CD since 1971 and are founding members of the Shiawassee County’s No-Tillers club, established in 1984. The club, Larry says, is a place for farmers to get together and talk about each other’s successes and failures. “Although we do not meet formally,” he told NACD, “we still get together for events – like the Shiawassee Conservation District’s conservation tours – to share our experiences. I actively promote no-till, cover crops, and continued education because I would like to see more farmers enjoy the benefits that I do.”
The Lee family farms 750 acres of hilly and highly erodible land, so they know the importance of protecting soil from erosion. “We can’t produce a quality crop if our soil doesn’t stay in the field where it can be used,” Larry told NACD. “The health of our soil is also very important to us. We know that if we build healthy soil, we are also building our land’s production potential which will benefit our family for future generations.”
Larry rotates corn, soybeans, and wheat on his farm, and has incorporated multi-species cover crops. He switched to 100 percent no-till from chisel plowing and vertical tillage in 1980, and has been a strong promoter of the practice ever since. The family also maintains several grassed waterways and 30 acres of filter strips and conservation cover. “We established some of these areas as early as 1990, and we will continue maintaining them as they control soil erosion, protect water quality and provide quality wildlife habitat,” Larry explained.
“An added benefit of these practices is that it has reduced the number of times we need to drive across our fields to add nutrients, spray pesticides, and plant crops. Each time you drive across a field it may cause soil compaction, which is damaging to soil health. Less trips across the field means we use less energy, we save money in labor costs, and we have more time we can spend with our family.”
Larry, who has been a farmer his entire life, has learned that growing food to meet today’s production demands can be a trial and error process. “No-till and cover crops are a step in the right direction,” he said. “I have experienced failures over the years, but I learn something new with every set back and I use those lessons to succeed. I work closely with NRCS Plant Materials Center in Michigan, and my local NRCS and conservation district office to try many species and mixes of cover crops to experiment and learn what works the best for my farm.”
Because the family farms on hilly ground, they are constantly working to reduce soil erosion. They’ve also been challenged by planting through residue and “warming up the soil” in south central Michigan’s climate before planting.
“I face these challenges by using 100 percent no-till and adding cover crops into my crop rotation,” Larry said. “These practices control erosion by keeping the soil covered at all times with living plants and residue. We have found that earth worms are key players in digesting residue and turning it into organic matter. Residue mass is never an issue, the earthworms take care of that for us! A healthy soil is a living, productive soil. Tillage turns soil life upside down.”
“I know by using cover crops and no-till we have taken the right steps to build better soil for future generations of my family,” he continued. “We will continue to use new methods to control soil erosion. Times are changing, and we need to change with them.”