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Alumni Profile

Bet the farm on it


 Perk Hoecker, BS Ag ’65, a retired bank vice president, has practiced no-till farming for the past 14 years. Behind him, this year’s soybean crop grows among last year’s corn stubble. Photo by Rob Hill.

Perk Hoecker’s grain fields don’t look like your standard tilled fields. The difference is intentional. Hoecker practices no-till farming.

“I have not disturbed the soil surface for the last 14 years,” says Hoecker, BS Ag ’65, retired executive vice president of First National Bank (now Landmark Bank) in Columbia. “As a result, the structure of the soil has changed, and I’m now farming the top five or six feet of soil, instead of the top one foot.”

In traditional farming practices, tilling removes weeds and loosens the soil to prepare the ground for planting. The process can lead to soil compaction, erosion and loss of organic matter. No-till farming, on the other hand, preserves the soil quality, slows erosion and improves water retention.

Here’s how it works: In the fall, Hoecker plants Oregon annual ryegrass as a winter cover crop. Ryegrass has a large, fibrous root system — after three years, it can grow into the soil as deep as five to six feet — which breaks up compacted soil. In the spring, he kills the ryegrass with Roundup, leaving all plant matter above and below ground undisturbed to decompose. He then plants corn on half his acreage and soybeans on the other half. After he harvests those plants in the fall, he again plants the ryegrass cover crop on all his ground. The following spring, he’ll plant soybeans in the corn stubble, and corn in the old soybean fields.

“Not disturbing the soil structure is what makes this work,” Hoecker says. “I have lots of earthworms in my soil because of the organic matter from the decomposing roots. Also, the root structure leading from the soil surface to deep within the soil acts like a sponge, soaking up water when it rains. My runoff is only 5 percent to 10 percent of what the runoff would be in a tilled field or pasture. It’s similar to the original prairies, which didn’t have erosion ditches because the ground was so permeable.”

Hoecker is quick to admit that the process, while perhaps more environmentally sound than traditional farming methods, is not organic. “I need to use Roundup to kill the ryegrass cover crop in the spring,” he says. In addition to reducing soil erosion and improving soil water retention, “No-till farming increases soil organic matter while reducing greenhouse emissions. It improves the quality of the soil.”   — Sarah Garber