Sussex Conservation District
Blaine Hitchens is a third-generation farmer in Laurel, Del. His operation includes 1,000 acres of corn and soybean cropland and six poultry houses in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. In 2018, a family friend and NACD Soil Health Champion Chip Baker decided to retire after more than 40 years of farming and lease his acres to Hitchens. Baker saw the same passion in Hitchens that he had for soil health and believes he’s leaving his land in good hands.
Hitchens began no-till farming more than 15 years ago and incorporating cover crops more than 10 years ago. Hitchens’ drive toward innovation led him to start experimenting with ‘planting green,’ a conservation practice of no-till planting primary crops into actively growing cover crops. This practice means there is a living root in the ground year-round, improving soil health, capturing moisture, reducing or eliminating erosion, and storing carbon in the soil, which contributes toward combating climate change. He began experimenting on 25 – 30 acres, but in 2019, he finally reached the point of planting all of his cover crops green.
Through participation in programs like the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), Hitchens has received both technical and financial assistance to incorporate new conservation practices throughout his fields. These practices address a variety of issues, such as nutrient management, irrigation water management, pest management and waste treatment. Additionally, Hitchens participates in the Sussex Conservation District’s cover crop cost-share program each year. He says that this kind of assistance is invaluable, as it has allowed him to experiment and learn from his mistakes with a lower level of investment risk.
Since making advancements in his operation with continuing to no-till, adding a variety of cover crops, continuing crop rotations, and planting green, Hitchens has observed an increase in resilience to weather extremes. Because the soil has better water infiltration and holding capacity due to the year-round root systems, his crops are not stressed in periods of extreme heat and drought. There is available moisture for the crops and soil temperatures are cooler with the ground covered. In 2019, Hitchens faced 46 days of 90-degree weather, and yet his yields were amazing for the weather conditions.
Additionally, Hitchens has been incorporating humic acids – or activated carbon – to the soil during planting. This allows the soil to break down more of the excess nitrates and, according to Hitchens, has made huge improvements to their land.
Hitchens’ advice for those wanting to make some positive changes in their operations by incorporating more conservation practices is to start on a small scale – something you could manage and not stress over. From there, you can see how it works and make adjustments. That’s how he and his father began – learning from their experiences. Over time, you will see the benefits.
Updated September 2021.