Justin Knopf kneels in his soybean field carefully cradling a clump of soil he's just dug out with his spade. An earthworm twisted into a pink ball is visible near the bottom of the clod, and it wiggles and stretches to its full length as Knopf peals away the dirt.
“That's a good show," Knopf said. "For me, that's a good show.”
For farmers who use traditional tillage methods of raising crops, earthworms are harder to come by, but Knopf and his brother, Jeff, implemented no-till practices they learned while students at Kansas State University when they began managing the family's farmlands near Kipp and Gypsum in 2003. Now, he can point to numerous holes made by worms, and he looks forward to seeing an increasing number in the years to come.
“When we stop churning the soil, we see the earthworm population begin to increase," Knopf said. "That's the easiest thing for farmers to see with our own eyes. That’s the best biological symbol to say, 'OK, we’re moving the habitat in our soils in the right direction if we’re seeing more earthworm castings on top of the soil or more earthworm holes.”
Knopf's commitment to restoring the health of the soils that his family depends on for a living and countless people depend upon for food drew the attention of members of the Environmental Defense Fund. They recommended him to author Miriam Horn, who was looking for a conservation-minded farmer to feature in her book "Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman." The book, published a year ago, spotlights working families in America's Heartland who protect the land and sea while making a living producing food.
At 8 p.m. Thursday, a documentary film based on the book and narrated by Tom Brokaw will air on the Discovery Channel.
“Having a long-term perspective is so important to the land,” Knopf said. “We play such a small piece of the long story that is happening on this landscape.”
For Knopf, the national attention was unexpected and a bit uncomfortable.
When Horn first approached him, he asked for time to consider.
“As we thought about it, I just felt that we have a responsibility to share our story," he said. "I really see it as an increasingly rare opportunity that I have to be a farmer and to farm with my family. I think people rightfully are concerned about what we’re doing with these resources out here in the Heartland because it's such an important area to our country and our world.”
Horn first came out during wheat harvest in 2013.
“I thought, 'This is going to be interesting — this gal from New York just coming out trying to find a random wheat field out in the middle of Kansas,'" he said. "But she did it. She showed up right on time.”
After that first three-day visit, Horn returned five more times over the next two years during different seasons, so she could observe different farm operations. When she wasn't at the Knopf farm, she was riding a tugboat down the Mississippi River or observing calves being branded or checking weather forecasts for other chapters of the book.
It was a colleague she had asked to make edits to an early version of her manuscript who suggested the documentary.
"When it first started, there was never discussion about a film or I probably would not have chosen to participate," Knopf said. He told them no so many times that they were looking for another farmer to do the film before Knopf reconsidered.
"I get frustrated and sad when I see things that are not true about farmers, and if I’m not willing to engage and share truth about what we do, then I don’t have much to complain about," he said.
Filming began in 2014, and once again the Knopf farm was visited in different seasons. This time there were five people, including two producers, a camera man with a camera the size of a suitcase, his assistant and a soundman obsessed with capturing all the normal sounds of Knopf's day.
"When I walked through a corn field, it was important to him to capture the sound of the corn residue crunching under my feet," he said.
As filming proceeded, Knopf's apprehension faded and was replaced by appreciation for the skills of the film crew. He said the cameraman who ran ahead of him on hot days during harvest captured "absolutely beautiful videography" of the wheat being cut.
"As I watched them work, I just had so much respect for the work that they do and how hard they work and how good they are at what they do," he said.
After the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, Horn brought a copy of the portion featuring Knopf and Osage City area farmer Keith Thompson to show at the No-Till on the Plains Conference in Salina. Knopf saw the entire documentary this spring while attending the Commodity Classic in San Antonio.
Knopf emphasized that he is not doing anything magical or much different from what many other farmers are doing, but he is "very hopeful" about the changes he's seen in the productivity of his family's fields since abandoning traditional farming practices used for more than a century in his family's fields for the no-till method.
“I’m not a farmer out here who has all the answers or has a perfect system because I believe there is no perfect system," he said. "We’re always going to be dealing with pests and weeds and weather, so, there are always tradeoffs. What I try to do is wade through those tradeoffs and pick the path that I feel is the right path long-term in how we work with our land. That’s the answer for me, but I don’t fault other guys for having a different answer.”
Knopf said he is continuing to learn and experiments each season with tweeks to the system that might result in better yields and more resiliency for his crops, which this summer are growing well despite dry conditions in his nonirrigated fields.
"There are guys who are far ahead of me on this path of regenerative agriculture that I look to and learn from," he said.
However, Knopf is pleased with the slow progress he's observed in the soils of the 4,000 acres he, his brother and his father farm. Instead of easily blowing away like the dust particles he would see when the fields were tilled, the soil Knopf spades up among his soybean plants now sticks together and crumbles apart in soft clumps when he squeezes it between his fingers. The more biologically active soil is better at holding moisture and nutrients and grows healthy crops without as much need for fertilizer.
Although the no-till system of crop rotation relies on a heavier use of herbicides, Knopf sees that as preferable to churning up the soil and disrupting the fungi networks slowly regenerating under the surface. A constant rotation of a variety of crops helps control weeds and prevent recurrent insect invasions by disrupting their food supply. As each crop dies, its stalks and leaves are left in the field, and that residue prevents weeds and protects the soil from temperature extremes and battering rains. Rainwater trickles through the plant material and is absorbed into the soil instead of running off.
It was observations of rain water running off the fields that ultimately convinced Knopf’s father, Jerry, a long-time traditional farmer, that his sons were right about no-till. In the wet spring of 2005, Jerry noticed that the water running off the family fields was clear, while the water coming from a neighboring tilled field was cloudy with mud.
“That black-and-white difference is what really made him know that this was the right choice for the long term,” Knopf said.