Soil Health Heroes

Charlie Roberts

Growing Cover Crops to Manage Nutrients and to Improve Soil Health Near the Mississippi River

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My name is Mike Hubbs. I am the Soil Health Specialist with Tennessee Association of Conservation Districts (TACD). I have authored the series of Profiles of Soil Health Heroes. I introduce myself in this article because I live in north Knox County in a community called Halls, sometimes called Halls Crossroads. In its long history, Halls Crossroads, or as locals call it Halls, has attempted to obtain its own postal zip code. For whatever reason, it has not happened. Years ago, they tried and the post office was going to be named Halls Dale in order not to be confused with Halls, Tennessee. That fell through, and Halls still has a Knoxville zip code. 

IMG 2164newI give you this background because our next Profiles of Heroes, number 26 is Charlie Roberts from Halls, Tennessee in Lauderdale County. Halls CrossroadsIMG 2207newin Knox County is approximately 400 miles east of Halls, Tennessee in Lauderdale County. I say all of this because it has been a common miscommunication. Recently a delivery for Halls in Knox County comes to Halls in West Tennessee. The driver of the truck was absolutely perturbed when he realized that he had to drive an additional 400 miles east because of miscommunication from his home office. So on November 3, 2016, I made my way from Halls in North Knox County to just 14 miles east of the Mississippi River in Halls, Tennessee. I met Charlie Roberts and George Henshaw, NRCS District Conservationist for Lauderdale County at Charlie's mother's place of business, Charlene's Collectibles and lunch at " Just Divine Tea Room." I was surprised by the bustle of activity at Charlene's Collectibles with several women all over the region shopping and eating. I am not accustomed to eating at too many "Tea Rooms;" however, I must say the food was great and plentiful for a man's appetite. I can see why the crowd was there.

I have attended some Soil Health Round Table Discussions with Charlie Roberts over the last two years in Madison County on two occassions. I also traveled with him with the Tennessee's tour of Dave Brandt's in Ohio in August of 2015. I have also seen him at some field days where I presented. I knew about his enthusiasm to learn more about soil health. I also had discussed with him some of his farming experiences. Thus, I am now writing about his sucesses in improving his soil.

With drought and extreme warm weather this fall, I noted the temperature was 82 degrees on November 3, 2016 at Charlie's farm. They have not received any rain in approximately six weeks. Charlie said the last rain was 0.25 to 0.5 inch. Charlie said that he was a fourth-generation farmer. I also met his Dad, Ronnie during lunch. He said that their ancestors made their way from North Carolina to the Cumberland river and then westward to Carroll County. The Roberts made their way from Carroll County in 1920 in seven wagons and traveled for seven days to the Barr Community in Lauderdale County. Their reason for picking up and relocating was the inexpensive land prices and higher fertility of the soils adjacent to the Mississippi River. Their original track of land was the Barr Farm on the Mississippi River.  Ronnie said that Charlie runs the farming operation now. Ronnie helps out from time to time with the farming operation and also at Charlene's Collectibles. Charlie said their original farm was a historical cotton farm. Recently the farm has changed to a corn, soybean, triticale and cereal rye and oats for grain.  They only produced corn, soybeans and oats in 2015 and 2016. The last cotton produced on the farm was 2013. Charlie says they will continue to grow corn, soybeans, oats, triticale and rye in the future. The farming operation is approximately 1,300 acres.

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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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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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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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