Madison, South Dakota
Lake County Conservation District
Johnson Organic Farms
Aaron Johnson, his wife Kirstin and three children live and farm in Madison, South Dakota, within the Lake County Conservation District. The farm, certified organic since 1976, has been in the family for years under the management of Aaron’s parents, William and Jolene, and Aaron’s uncle and aunt, Bernard and Mary. Initially, William was not sold on the idea of going organic, but his brother “Uncle Bernie” talked him into it. Over the past nine years, Aaron has participated in farming with his cousins – three of Bernard’s sons and one of his grandsons.
On Johnson Organic Farms, the family grows corn, soybeans, oats and alfalfa in a six-year rotation. The first year they plant oats under-seeded with alfalfa; years two and three are alfalfa. Then in year four is soybeans, followed by a winter rye cover crop that is planted after the soybeans have been harvested. Year five is corn, followed by soybeans in year six. This rotation is a combination of warm and cool season grasses and broadleaves. It also eliminates any tillage during the oats/alfalfa/alfalfa seasons which in turn increases organic matter (averaging five percent). This increased organic matter is beneficial to the microbial soil life and reduces wind and water erosion.
The Johnsons’ shelterbelts, grass waterways and buffer strips are strategically placed to further prevent erosion. The grass waterways and buffer strips are placed where high water volumes are common, usually during snow melt – determining the field size and shape. The average field on Johnson Organic Farms is roughly 35 acres, and each quarter of land will have three, if not four, of the major crops growing on it. The waterways and buffer strips also provide wild hay, which is baled and used as feed (along with the alfalfa) for the stock cattle herd.
Since taking over managing Johnson Organic Farms, Aaron has divided some larger fields in half. The smaller fields allow the Johnsons to grow multiple crops on a quarter of the land and minimize the extreme variability of soil properties often found in larger fields. This also reduces wind erosion during winter months, because there is often a field with a cover crop or tree shelter belt less than 40 acres away. Old tree shelterbelts are difficult to maintain effective wind breaks and planting individual replacement trees is hard work, but Aaron says the future outcome is well worth the efforts.
The challenges Aaron and his cousins face in their operation are typically things they have little control over. While they continue to learn on how to work with Mother Nature, they try their best to be proactive in their encouragement and endorsement of funding valuable programs with their conservation district and the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Programs. These programs show great success and positive results in the agriculture community for many generations.
Updated April 2021