This is the ninth in our series of Profiles of Soil Health Heroes. This profile is a unique one; it is on no-till and strip tillage tobacco. Our featured farmer for this profile is Phillip Jenkins; Phillip farms in partnership with his brother. His brother produces the grain crops, corn, wheat, and soybeans, and Phillip operates the tobacco enterprise. The farm is near Springfield, Tennessee in Robertson County. Phillip farms level to gentle rolling slopes 0-4%. The soils are Pembroke Silt Loam, Pickwick Silt Loam, and Staser Silt Loam. Phillip received technical and financial assistance on cover crops from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). He is pictured with Chase Coakley and Nathan Hicklin, NRCS, Robertson County, Tennessee.
Phillip produces 50 acres of Dark Fired tobacco and 10 acres of Burley tobacco. I visited the farm on September 9, 2015. Many of the barns in the area had the familiar smoke and aroma coming from the roof tops. Phillip uses UAN 32% nitrogen and knifes in at 6" from row at 3" depth. Most of his fields are at 6.4 - 6.7 pH. Working with his brother, the typical rotation is corn, wheat, soybeans, and 2 years of tobacco. In similar crop rotations including tobacco, soil organic matter (SOM) would be sustained or increased during grain crops in no-till, and reduced during tobacco years due to the amount of tillage and low residue associated with tobacco production. Phillip wants to reverse that trend and use the tobacco years as soil building.
Phillip began in 2014 to produce no-till tobacco. His entire 60 acres of tobacco was produced by no-till planting. In 2015, he purchased a strip tillage planter. He planted 75% of his 60 acres with strip tillage, and 25% with no-till. Discussing soil health principals (1) Reduce disturbances; (2) Keep the soil covered; (3) Keep roots growing; and (4) Diversify with rotation of crops and cover crops, Phillip wants to increase his SOM and improve his soil health. Phillip talked about his one-year experience with strip tillage.
After the field was planted, it was rough and needed to be smooth compared to the fields no-tilled. Phillip wants to reduce tillage as much as possible. He sees the multiple species cover crops as a way to increase soil life, increase SOM, and increase yields with less inputs.
He began in 2014 with no-till tobacco in corn stubble. After tobacco harvest in 2014, he planted a 5-way (five species) cover crop mixture. He planted his tobacco in 2015, 75% strip-till and 25% no-till. Since mid August, he has been planting cover crops after this year's tobacco crop. He is using two different mixtures. Mixture one: Two pounds per acre of purple top turnips, 7 pounds of hairy vetch, 7 pounds of berseem clover, 17 pounds of cereal rye, and 20 pounds of winter oats, all per acre. Mixture two: twenty five pounds of Austrian winter pea, 11 pounds of crimson clover, 20 pounds of cereal rye,and 2 pounds of purple top turnips, all per acre. He uses the grasses to build SOM, legumes to fix atmospheric nitrogen, and brassicas (turnips) to loosen the soil and store nutrients.
As we dug in the fields, we found platy structure, but changing quickly to granular structure. It takes time with no-till and cover crops to change soil structure from platy to granular. Granular structure will infiltrate more water. The soil surface was dark with earthworm casts all over the fields. It was very unusual and quite surprising to see the residue between tobacco rows with immense earthworm activity.
What impresses me about Phillip, is he is just begun a soil health system for tobacco two years ago. The results have been surprisingly quick. I contribute the changes due to adding to an already good corn-wheat, and soybean rotation and the long use of no-till with the grain crops plus the addition of no-till/strip tillage tobacco with multi species cover crops. The SOM has increased from 1% at 0-6" depth to 2% in one field to 2.6% in other fields. Phillip desires to continue multi-species cover crops with his diverse crop rotation. He wants to continue to make adjustments on his no-till trans planter to his no-till/strip till tobacco and continue to see more profits from his use of multi species cover crops. Phillip is proving you can produce large acres of tobacco and improve soil health at the same time.