Large corporation helps change the paradigm in farming through advocating changing decades-old agricultural techniques

Alice Mannette
The Hutchinson News
Shane New (L) and David Kleinschmidt (R)  of Understanding Ag place a soil probe on June 7 in Larry Reichenberger's (C) soybean field in central Kansas.

A little more than a year ago, General Mills, with the help of Understanding Ag, chose central Kansas to begin a pilot program that teaches farmers and ranchers how to raise crops with regenerative practices.

By changing several decades-old techniques, soil becomes healthier, the food grown on the healthy soil is richer in nutrients and the farmer saves money on both equipment and chemicals - ultimately, increasing their profits in the long run. 

Larry Reichenberger and his brother Jack, who are a part of the 3-year pilot program, this year changed the way they use their farm equipment and planted rye as their first cover crop. Even though they had to abort the rye because of a lack of rain, they still saw a difference in the next crop they planted. 

"We've already had 30% more soybeans emerge," said Larry Reichenberger, who farms in Reno and Sedgwick counties. 

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David Kleinschmidt and Shane New of Understanding Ag, a soil health company that is helping with education and implementation for the project, said what the Reichenbergers are seeing is not unusual. As each farm and farmer is different, so too are their results.

General Mills and the people at Understanding Ag are hoping these farmers and ranchers will tell other farmers and ranchers about the process. Understanding Ag is also collecting data and continuing to educate.

David Kleinschmidt of Understanding Ag explains to Larry Reichenberger how a soil probe will work on his soybean field in central Kansas.

Technology

Along with education, General Mills is footing the bill for equipment and testing. In early June, Kleinschmidt and New installed probes into the ground at Reichenberger's soy field and several other farms in Kingman and Reno County.

Eventually, all 24 farms in the pilot program, which is part of the Cheney Lake Watershed and includes farms in Ellsworth, Harper, Kingman, Pratt, Reno, Rice, Saline, Sedgwick and Stafford counties, will have probes that will utilize essential analytics.

The four-foot AquaSpy soil moisture probes will measure the temperature, root depth, amount of salt and moisture level at two-inch intervals. These solar-powered probes are weatherproof and fully encapsulated. 

"Every time we get a rain event, we will know how far the water infiltrated into the soil," Kleinschmidt said.

Each farmer will have the information generated on their probe available on their phone. 

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David Kleinschmidt drills a hole in a soybean field to place a probe into.

Helping turn the land around

Brent Stuckey has used no-till farming methods for years on his Reno County farm near Abbyville. But, he said, becoming a part of this program has taught him to use a variety of cover crops and introduce livestock. 

"There are some changes that are pretty immediate," he said. "Weed suppression is one of the first benefits we've seen."

Stuckey, who raises wheat, soy, milo and alfalfa, said learning from experts is amazing. 

"The expertise they brought is pretty awesome," he said. 

This past year, Stuckey started renting his land out to a rancher. Not only does this help his soil, but he said, "it puts more money in my pocket."

David Kleinschmidt of Understanding Ag places a soil probe into the ground on a soybean field in central Kansas.

Landscapes change, but the principles remain the same

Although each farm is different, according to Kleinschmidt, the techniques these 24 farmers in central Kansas are learning can be applied to farms in western, eastern and northern Kansas or just about anywhere in the U.S. 

By increasing resilience and regenerating the life of the soil, farmers can increase water absorption and retention. By using six regenerative principles, farmers can eventually increase their output and decrease their input.

These six principles include an understanding of their farm's operations, minimizing soil disturbance, increasing diversity, keeping the soil covered with either a cash or non-cash crop, maintaining living roots in the ground and integrating cows, pigs, chickens or any other livestock.

By keeping the ground covered, the soil will hold both heat and water during winter. On unprotected fields, Kleinschmidt said, the ground will become much colder. This works in reverse during the summer months.

"We're trying to keep nitrates and phosphates out of the water supply," Kleinschmidt said. "Healthy soil is promoting carbon into the soil through cover crops."  

General Mills, with the help of its Kansas pilot project, is hoping to regenerate at least one million acres of farmland by 2030. Along with a program in North Dakota and Canada, General Mills has a pilot program helping dairy farmers in Michigan.

New, who runs New Family Farms in Holton and is a partner in Understanding Ag, said we all want clean water and healthy soil. And just as important, he said, we want to build back our rural economies.

"It is really encouraging. We're seeing a lot of positive stuff (from this program)," New said. "This is good for the environment and good for the rural communities." 

General Mills helps Kansas farmers learn about regenerative agriculture.

Learn more about the history of the project: https://www.hutchnews.com/news/20200207/general-mills-chooses-cheney-reservoir-for-restorative-farming-project