Soil Health Heroes

Justin and Javen Fann

Leaving Cover Crops Growing Later in Spring is Key to Quicker Soil Changes

IMG 2142newOur 25th Profiles of Soil Health Heroes are Justin and Javen Fann. The Fann Brothers farm in Warren and Cannon Counties, Tennessee. They are third generation farmers. Their soils are mostly Dixson soils and lays gently on approximately 0-4% slopes. I visited the farm with the brothers, Javen's son, J. Daxton Fann, Trent Hancock, an employee, and Matt Feno, District Conservationist, NRCS, McMinnville, Tennessee.IMG 2121new

As I am writing this article, Tennessee is suffering a drought in most locations of Tennessee. As Matt and I drove up to the farm, I saw green fields of cover crops growing exceptionally. I was pleasantly surprised. Their cover crops growing so well is a testimony to their following soil health principles. They left last year's covers undisturbed (no tillage), the soil is continuously covered, and they planted a cover crop for continuous growing plants with continuous growing roots after cash crop harvest. The cover crop is acting as a solar panel and is intercepting sun light energy and converting sun light to carbon in the green plants. Carbon is then increased in the soil from the biomass and roots. The diversity in the covers and crop rotations are up taking nutrients at different times, and the diversity above ground is improving the environment for soil biology and the soil is improving very quickly.

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Corby Brown

No-till Tobacco with Cover Crops improve Soil Health and Increase Farmer's Profits


IMG 0219NewTobacco is not normally thought of as a crop that improves soil health. By the time George Washington returned to Mount Vernon in the 1780s, tobacco was a predominant cash crop in the colonies and had been since 1611.  Like his father before him, Washington grew tobacco. He noticed the land had lost its fertility. George Washinton replaced tobacco with wheat and began a crop rotation system to bring life back into the soil. Many years after, we are still trying crop rotations that will improve our soil health. Traditionally, tobacco is plowed and followed by at least two other secondary tillage methods to smooth the field prior to transplanting. Even though tobacco is normally rotated, a typical tobacco field can suffer from soil erosion during the years in tobacco. When you examine a traditionally plowed tobacco field, one normally does not see many soil health indicators improving.

That what makes this Profile of Soil Health Hero unique. Corby Brown grows no-till tobacco and is improving soil health. Corby is our 24th Profile of Soil Health Hero. He farms in Macon IMG 2060newand Clay Counties, Tennessee, as well in Monroe, Barren, and Metcalf Counties, Kentucky. Corby grows personally approximately 250 acres of Burly tobacco. He works with his son, Christopher, and nephew, Elliot. Their combined acres total approximately 1,000 acres of Burly tobacco. There are also others in his family involved. Corby is the specialist for setting tobacco where Christopher focuses on fertility, and Elliot on weed management. They all have their personal farms but work together as far as advising and assisting one another. Corby also grows corn, soybeans, and some cereal rye. He also grows some sweet potatoes. His tobacco is planted in 40" rows. Corn and soybeans are planted on 20" rows. He annually soil tests. He maintains a pH of approximately 6.2 or greater. His yields in the last three years have been approximately 70 bushels of soybeans, 210 bushels of corn per acre, and 1600 - 2100 pounds of tobacco per acre.

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Ricky Essary

Cover Crops Provide Diversity and Residue to Improve Soil Health


IMG 1937newRicky Essary is the 22nd in our series of Profiles of Soil Health Heroes in Tennessee. Ricky farms with his son and son-in-law. The partnership is called Essary and Cherry Farms. Ricky is the chairman of the Hardin County Soil Conservation District. He resides in Milledgeville, Tennessee. Milledeville is unique in that it sits in three counties, McNairy, Chester, and Hardin. Ricky said that he farms in four counties, the three previously mentioned ones with the addition of Henderson County. He said that he farms the four counties all within 4 miles of his home.

It did not take me long to see one of Ricky's passions. It is tractor pulling. He has been competing in open class for over 40 years. He says he began driving then his daughter, and son. He said his daughter had the best feel, and was the best. Their tractor was very impressive. His passion is also evident in his conservation ethic. He believes in improving soil health.IMG 1836new

Walter Rickman was his grandfather on his mother's side. He moved into the area and cleared the land with a drag line and dynamite. Mr. Rickman eventually owned 1,000 acres. Ricky tells me that Mr. Rickman owned 4 grocery stores. The children went into the grocery business and were not interested into farming. Ricky's father began farming with Mr. Rickman. After Mr. Rickman's passing, the land went to the children, where Ricky has bought most of it from uncles and aunts.

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James England

IMG 1954newOur 23rd Profiles of Soil Health Heroes is from Claiborne County, Tennessee. He is James England. James farms approximately 1,000 acres, and raises beef cattle. His soils are from dolomitic cherty limestone with slopes from 3-5% on cropland and 8 - 25% plus on pastureland. He grazes 280 total head including 160 cows with calves and replacement heifers. He has 40 fields that are generally 15 - 40 acres each. He has installed 30 water IMG 1947newtanks, so he can easily subdivide into smaller paddocks. He also feeds corn and hay to 30 total steers and heifers, and feeds them out to 500 - 900 pounds depending on market prices. He grows 30 acres of corn. He no-tills and uses a multi species cover crop on his corn land. He also plants sorghum-sudan grass for hay. James broadcasts his sorghum-sudan grass seed and breaks the ground with a harrow for planting. He plants sorghum-sudan grass approximately June 1. James cuts one cutting off of sorghum-sudan grass and grazes the rest of the season. He plants winter covers in the fall. I asked James what fields are grazed, and he said all of them. The corn field is grazed in fall and spring when in winter cover crops.

He also has a green house where he produces organic tomatoes. He uses compost for soil fertility. I visited the farm on July 18, 2016 with NRCS District Conservationist, Mike Shoffner and Soil Conservationist, Justin Howard both out of Tazewell Field Office. We talked to James and toured the farm with James' farm manager.IMG 1945new

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Harris Brothers

IMG 1369newYoung Farming Brothers Improving their Soil and Profits using Latest Technology and Cover Crops


The Harris Brothers from Chester County are our 21st in the series of Profiles of Soil Health Heroes. Rusty and Jeff Harris are twins and farming partners. They are fifth generation farmers. Their farm headquarters are located at Wayne Harris Road, named after their grandfather. They live in Henderson, Tennessee. Rusty is Chairman of the Chester County Soil Conservation District Board. I had the privilege to visit them on June 2, 2016 along with Brad Denton, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) District Conservationist for Madison and Chester Counties. I also had the privilage to work with Levi Harris, Jeff's son. On earlier visit in March of 2016, I met Hannah, Rusty's daughter. The future farming generation is in good hands with children like Hanna and Levi getting this great exposure of farming to improve soil health.IMG 1832new 

IMG 1757newRusty and Jeff grew up farming with their dad. Rusty began farming approximately eleven years ago. He was working off farm, when their dad became deathly ill. After their dad died, Rusty began farming full time. He began acquiring bottom land fields with slopes no greater than 4 percent, with the exception of one farm that have some significant slopes. All soils are loess or alluvial soils. The fields are very productive but highly erosive. On the other hand, Jeff started farming full time about four years ago. Out of necessity due to prime farm lands already leased out, he acquired steeper ground, mostly coming out of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Many farmers want to till up CRP lands. Jeff wanted to preserve the soil organic matter that built up during CRP. Landowners saw this advantage of keeping their fields productive and leased their lands to Jeff. Rusty and Jeff have shown a remarkable stewardship. Landowners have been content to keep them in leases. In both cases, the brothers acquired farms that have been managed well for conservation. These soils respond well to their continued soil health improving management.

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