By Tim Leeds
BIG SANDY A host of experts gathered near Big Sandy to present effects of organic farming techniques, including benefits to farmers and land, and better ways to handle drought.
Topics discussed addressed drought, but presenters said many of the techniques they talked about would help in any season.
"I would argue that water's almost always limited in this part of the country, but it's been even more limited in the last few years," Perry Miller, an assistant professor at Montana State University-Bozeman, said.
The presentations started at Rob-An Farms, an organically certified operation about 15 miles west of Big Sandy run by Robert and Ann Boettcher and their son, Earl. Presenters ranging from college professors and graduate students to representatives of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Risk Management Agency and the Natural Resources Conservation Service spoke at the workshop.
The group then moved about three miles east to the organic farm run by state Sen. Jon Tester, D-Big Sandy, and his wife and son, Sharla and Shon Tester.
Several farmers attended the presentations, although Robert Boettcher said he hoped for more.
Jon Tester said that part of the reason the tour was held was to show that organic farming, while it can be beneficial, isn't a cure-all.
"We're certainly not immune to drought and crop failure because we're organic," he said.
The recent heat has started stressing crops on his farm, even with the higher moisture the area has received this year, Tester said.
There are many different crops farmers can use to access resources at different levels in the soil, Miller said. Some crops, like sunflowers and safflowers, can reach nearly twice as deep into the soil as the roots of wheat do. That allows the plants to use a buildup of nitrogen that typically develops in the soil over the years.
Other crops, like peas, lentils and fenugreek, have roots that don't reach as deep as wheat, Miller said.
"If you're looking for a crop that will get by with less water, these are good options," he said.
One problem, according to Boettcher is the tradition of tilling fallow fields. Leaving bare black soil exposed to the weather instead of leaving a cover on fallow fields increases evaporation.
"You retain a lot more moisture if you have cover. We need to look at that and try to retain moisture," he said.
Dave Wichman, superintendent of MSU's Central Agricultural Research Center at Moccasin, said different techniques, as well as different crops, can be utilized to use water efficiently.
"Water is our number one management concern. Anytime you're not using water, you're wasting it," he said.
Some of the research the ag center is doing involves planting late-summer crops to better use available moisture.
Planting a crop like lentils late in the summer would use moisture received after earlier crops are harvested, Wichman said. The late crops could be terminated before reaching maturity to provide cover for the fields and increase nutrients in the soil, he said.
That kind of technique would be much more efficient, Miller said.
"What rain we get from late summer through September we usually lose," he said. "It's usually not a lot of rain to begin with, but what we do get usually evaporates back out."
Another possible way to better use moisture would be alternative winter crops, Miller said. Researchers in Saskatchewan, Canada and North Dakota are experimenting with a pea crop that would be planted much like winter wheat.
"We believe we could get a much higher yield with the same water use," Miller said.
Using different farming techniques could also help in dry years, Wichman said. One option is using different spacing when planting the crop. Another is cultivating part of the crop back into the ground so there's less competition for water and nutrients when a dry season persists, he said.
It's better to have a small, healthy crop than a large crop with no yield, Wichman said.
Using techniques common to organic farming can eventually create much healthier soil, which is more resistant to erosion and more able to absorb and retain moisture, Rick Bandy of the NRCS Great Falls office said.
The NRCS conducted soil-quality tests on a field at Rob-An Farms to measure how fast the soil absorbed water, how dense it is and the stability of the soil. The tests showed some improvement in Boettchers' field over fields farmed with conventional techniques, although several factors make the accuracy of the measurements difficult to consider, Bandy said.
Even 15 years of new techniques is a short time to consider major changes in soil consistency, Bandy said.
Rob-An Farms was certified fully organic in 1992.
The drought is another factor, Bandy said. When he was testing water absorption rates, the soil showed it was absorbing water at a rate of 40 inches an hour.
"We throw measurements like that out," he said.
Another problem is the newness of the testing techniques.
"We're pretty new at this, really. We're still refining our techniques." Bandy said.
Organic techniques like crop rotation and leaving a cover on the ground do seem to improve soil quality, he said. Nutrients are put back into the ground, increasing the soil's ability to raise healthy crops and increasing it's density and ability to absorb water.
Another beneficial technique is planting an annual crop without fallowing, as long as crops are rotated, Bandy said.
Wichman said farmers were trained for 30 years following the Dust Bowl of the 1930s to use a crop-fallow system.
"Now we're going through a process to try to convert them back," he said.
Boettcher said he has seen the fields at his farm improve as they are farmed using organic techniques.
"I'm seeing less runoff in this field, which I attribute to crop rotation," he said.
Leaving a cover on the soil also helps prevent erosion, Wichman said.
"The way I watched the soil blow last year and the year before that I wished people had done something to prevent that," he said.
Rotating crops and using lower tilling or chemical fallowing can improve the soil quality of conventional farms too, Bandy said. Traditional techniques, like planting wheat all the time and using a high-till crop-fallow pattern, does not.
"The more you till, the more you destroy organic matter," he said.