Delta Junction, Alaska
Salcha-Delta Soil and Water Conservation District
My wife and I have five children and eight grandchildren. We are cooperators with the Salcha-Delta Soil and Water Conservation District in Delta Junction. Delta is the largest agricultural area in Alaska, growing mostly small grains and grass hay. Other crops grown are potatoes, field peas, and sometimes canola.
We have two operations on the farm. Wrigley Farms is the farming side. Alaska Flour Company is our value-added business. We have 1,700 acres and grow covered barley, hull-less barley, peas, and sometimes canola. We grow the covered barley for animal feed. We mill the hull-less barley into flour, cereal, couscous and a wide variety of other products. We started the flour mill to increase Alaska’s self-reliance, create new markets for other farmers, and to offer an opportunity for our children to return to the farm.
Soil Health Practices
We switched from conventional tillage to no-till about four years ago. We use a Cross Slot drill, which has ultra-low disturbance openers. The only penetration into the soil is a 3/16 inch coulter mark. All our fertilizer is banded below the soil surface so we get no volatilization of the urea. The drill handles straw residue easily, allows precise seed and fertilizer placement and maintains high levels of residue. We only get about 12 inches of precipitation per year in our area, so conserving the moisture is very important.
Our choice of this equipment was influenced by three factors. First, under conventional tillage, it took six pieces of equipment to plant the crop, each with a driver. As my kids left home, I ran out of drivers. I can now plant everything by myself. Second, we had some Conservation Reserve Program ground that we wanted to convert to crops, but didn’t want to disturb the many good things that had been happening in the soil over the last 20 years. The Cross Slot drill was an ideal tool to convert CRP to crops without disturbing those soil benefits. The third factor is that we needed to look at the whole crop production as a system in relation to pest/predator balance and microbial interactions, rather than just seed, fertilizer and water. Before we could do that, we needed equipment that would perform its job exactly the same under all soil conditions. We are now looking at the plant’s biosphere as a system to see where we can improve the plant/nutrient/microbial relationship.
To that end, we leave stubble standing to catch and hold the snow. We soil sample and track residual fertilizer trends, and we have been looking for a suitable rotation crop. There are very few that are adapted to high latitudes that also work in our market. Yellow field peas are one rotation crop that shows some promise for us. We have planted peas for four of the last five years, and we are optimistic that they will provide some agronomic benefits to the soil and also allow greater flexibility in dealing with the grass issues commonly associated with grain production.
Our farm is also organized with windbreaks every quarter mile, oriented perpendicular to prevailing winds. The windbreaks seem to make a difference when it blows hard, and our area can have extreme winds. It is common for the wind to blow for three to four days at a stretch with gust of 40 mph. In fact, there have been winds of over 60 mph in every month of the year, so anything that breaks up the wind has a positive impact on soil loss. The continuous cover afforded by leaving a lot of residue makes the wind a great deal less of an issue.
Some of the good things we have seen since we switched to no-till include the elimination of soil loss due to wind. I have seen wind whipping across the field in 40- to 50-mph gusts and not lift any soil, while the gravel road bordering the field was a dust bowl. Another benefit is the retention of moisture. Because our snow is so low in water content, most of the moisture that helps a crop is from spring rains. Some years those rains are late. For several years, I have gone to check the field moisture and found it as soon as I brushed away the residue. Neighboring farms at the same time have seed sitting in dry ground waiting for rain to even sprout. Even though we are in the field a week later than others, the constant availability of moisture helps make it up. The crop never stops growing. This year was especially dry for about a month after planting. We never saw any signs of drought stress.
Two challenges we face are our cold soils and dealing with grass in a no-tillage cropping system with so few options for rotation crops. To address crop rotation, we are trying short-season legume and brassica crops. Peas and polish canola varieties are logical starting places. We are developing a market for peas so that more acres can be planted. Our soil and water conservation district has purchased a canola crusher to help develop a market for canola.
Cold soils are a challenge because the extra residue from no-till slows soil warming compared with tillage. This delays planting by about a week, and it also delays seed germination by a few days. With our short seasons, we were concerned that a few days delay in the spring could push us outside the harvest window in the fall. Cold soils also slow the decomposition of residue and microbial activity. To address this problem, we cut the stubble 8-12 inches and bale the straw off. Because the drill buries virtually no stubble, our residue count is typically around 85 to 90 percent, so we try to balance the residue load to conserve moisture and still allow a timely soil warm up.