Neil DelkKettle Mills, TN

Neil Delk

Maury County Soil Conservation District

Kettle Mills, Tennessee

Neil Delk grew up farming but took a break from it when he was drafted in the U.S. Air Force in 1969. He worked, part-time, for a few years with the U.S. Department of Revenue and then returned to farming. Until about 12 years ago, he supplemented his farming with select timber cutting. Although he used to raise cattle and hogs, he now is a full-time grain farmer in Kettle Mills, Tennessee.

Delk admits that his family previously “scarred the land”. “We worked the ground like we thought we had to do,” he said. “We worked it like dust.” Now, however, he hasn’t tilled in over 20 years and is working hard to continuously improve his soil health.

Delk originally began using cover crops with the help of Jeff Bowie and Nathan Hicklin from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) about 10 years ago. He began with using only wheat. Eventually, he tried wheat and/or cereal rye with crimson clover. Now, he’s using a multi-species cover crop mix and is trying to fine-tune his carbon to nitrogen ration with it. Currently, he’s planting four species – tillage radishes, Austrian winter peas, crimson clover and cereal rye. He applies this mixture to almost all of his 500 acres.

He is a believer of and implements the four principles of soil health: (1) reducing disturbances through no-till and reduced pesticides, (2) keeping the soil covered with crop residue management and cover crops, (3) keeping roots growing continuously through crop rotations and cover crops and (4) increasing diversity with his multi-species cover crop mixture.

Through adoption of these practices, Delk has seen many improvements on his farm. He has seen major reduction in sheet, rill and gully erosion. His soil is more mellow, with higher infiltration rates and improved soil organic matter. Water is more apparent, and he therefore sees less stress from drought. Weed suppression is another big benefit, as his cereal rye provides allelopathy and chokes out many young weed seedlings.

Delk wants more people to get involved with these practices. He says that farmers must change their attitude and get away from following tradition, saying, “We must not be hard-headed and continue tilling because that is what others have done”. He has seen, first hand, that better soils produce better crops and he wants others to see it, too.

Updated August 2019.

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