Commitment to Conservation

Commitment to Conservation

By Jason Jenkins, Mill Creek Communications

There are two things Joshlin Yoder loves to do in the spring. The first enticed him back to the family farm; the second kept him there.

“We’d been living in Alabama for five years, and I hadn’t been turkey hunting in a really long time,” Joshlin says. “My dad had lost his hired man about that time, so he made me an offer. He’d buy my out-of-state turkey tag if I’d run the tractor for him in the afternoon and help him get the crop planted. That was all it took.”

In 2008, Joshlin and his wife, Addie, left Alabama and moved back to Shelby County to become the third generation of the Yoder family to farm in Missouri. Today, the couple works in partnership with Joshlin’s parents, Merlin and Twilah, and his brother and sister-in-law, Jordan and Becky. Combined, they manage about 4,500 row-crop acres and background roughly 1,200 cattle each year.

“To me, there’s nothing more magical or enjoyable than producing corn and soybeans,” Joshlin says. “Just putting that seed in the ground every spring with the faith that it’s going to grow and produce a crop, that’s exciting. As farmers, we do everything we can to nurture it and provide it with the best environment, and that all starts with taking care of the soil.”

The Yoders’ stewardship of the land on their farm and their efforts to inspire others earned them the 2020 Missouri Leopold Conservation Award, which recognizes extraordinary achievement in voluntary conservation. The award, which comes with a $10,000 prize, was announced in January at the 2021 Missouri Cattle Industry Convention & Trade Show in Osage Beach.

Given in honor of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold, the award provides a forum where farmers, ranchers and other private landowners are recognized as conservation leaders. Considered by many to be the father of wildlife management, Leopold was a forester, philosopher, educator, writer and outdoor enthusiast. His collection of essays, “A Sand County Almanac,” was published in 1949 and is one of the most respected and influential books about the environment ever written. Among Leopold’s best-known ideas is the “land ethic,” which calls for an ethical, caring relationship between people and nature.

The Leopold award has been presented annually since 2003 by the Sand County Foundation, which was established by a group of private landowners in 1965 to preserve the property north of Baraboo, Wisconsin, where Leopold did his writing and research. The organization has since expanded to support and promote voluntary conservation on working lands across the United States, currently presenting the award
in 23 states. Missouri Farmers Care, the Missouri Soybean Merchandising Council and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service partnered with the foundation to bring the Leopold award to the Show-Me State in 2017. The Yoders are the state’s fourth recipient.

Soil Saving Philosophy
While agricultural practices have changed greatly since Joshlin’s grandfather, Andy Ray Yoder, established his original 240-acre
farm back in 1953, the mentality of conserving soil and being good stewards of the land has always been part of the family’s farming philosophy.

To slow the movement of surface water and reduce soil erosion, the Yoders have installed terraces and drainage tile in many of their fields.

“Even when we were really tilling and plowing the soil, I could tell my dad always was concerned about things like soil erosion and nutrient loss,” Joshlin says. “As the science has evolved, our understanding of soil as farmers has evolved as well.”

When Joshlin and Addie moved back to the farm in 2008, no-till farming wasn’t commonplace among local producers, he says. While the family maintained waterways, built terraces and installed drainage tile to slow the movement of surface water and reduce soil erosion, traditional tillage in both the fall and spring was the norm for most as a means of managing crop residue and controlling weeds.

“We’ve learned that the more you work that soil, the more upheaval you get, the more compaction you cause, the greater the chance that soil erosion is going to take place,” Joshlin says. “So, we decided to work toward a no-till system to help control soil erosion and reduce compaction from tillage. Today, we’re 100% no-till on our soybeans and in the range of 20% to 25% with corn. We haven’t figured out no-till corn completely, but we’ve really tried to reduce the amount of tillage we do on ground going into corn.”

Incorporating cover crops across more acres has been another erosion and nutrient management practice that the Yoders have adopted. Joshlin says that in the past, they planted cereal rye or winter wheat in the fall with the goal of creating cattle forage in the spring. However, doing so gave them a glimpse at other benefits.

“We learned just how much having that growing crop through the winter really reduced the amount of soil erosion on those fields should we have a big rain,” Joshlin says. “We’ve had a lot of success using cereal rye, especially in front of soybeans. It’s a hardy crop. It’s easy to get established in the fall and fairly easy to terminate in the spring.”

The Yoders continue to work to find a mix of cover crops that work well planted before corn. They’ve tried mixes with oats, radishes and turnips, as well as cereal rye. Joshlin says the biggest challenge is having enough time between soybean harvest and winter to allow the cover crop to establish.

“If we can figure that out, I think it could be a real gamechanger for us in northeast Missouri,” he adds.

Nutrient Know-how
Like many producers today, the Yoders have adopted the “4R” nutrient stewardship concept when managing fertilizer inputs, ensuring they apply the right fertilizer source at the right rate at the right time and in the right place.

“I guess you’d say we’ve been doing the ‘4R thing’ for a long time without realizing we were doing the ‘4R thing,’” Joshlin says. “We’ve always put that emphasis on being efficient, making sure we get the most out of the dollars we invest.”

Joshlin Yoder checks the outlet of a water-quality monitoring station on the family farm. The station is part of a demonstration project to compare differences in sediment and nutrient loss between a field with cover crops and one without.

One of the first steps the Yoders took toward maximizing nutrient use while minimizing loss was to incorporate precision agriculture technology. Grid soil samples are collected from every acre they farm. This data, combined with crop nutrient removal from the previous year, allows them to apply both phosphorus and potassium at variable rates across the field.

Nitrogen also is managed more precisely. Joshlin says that in the
past, standard practice was to apply anhydrous ammonia in the fall before planting corn the next spring. Now, they split their nitrogen application and apply a portion of it during the growing season.

“In 2012, we bought a liquid fertilizer applicator and began side-dressing corn in-season,” Joshlin says. “By splitting that application, we’re using less nitrogen overall because we aren’t losing as much as when we applied it all in the fall. That rig allows us to get that nitrogen right where it needs to be to feed that corn crop when it needs it, and that’s led to yield increases.”

Borders and Bobwhites
While chasing gobblers through field and forest may have partially been responsible for bringing Joshlin and Addie back to Missouri, turkeys aren’t the only wildlife you’ll find on the Yoder farm. Rabbits, squirrels, white-tailed deer and other gamebirds including both ring-necked pheasant and bobwhite quail, along with scores of songbirds and other non-game species, reside on their property.

Ensuring these creatures continue to call the farm home was one goal, Joshlin says, when they enrolled acreage as habitat buffers in the USDA Conservation Reserve Program.

“We put about 30 acres in the CP33 field border program,” he explains. “Quail numbers in our area have been way down for a long time, so by creating some cover and brushy areas, hopefully we can increase their numbers and help other species, too.”

Not only does the program help wildlife, but it also helps the farm’s overall productivity by taking marginal acres out of production. Joshlin says from a business perspective, CP33 pencils out.

“If I’m farming those acres on the edge, I’m spending the same amount on seed, fertilizers, herbicides, time, labor and equipment as I do on every other acre, but they don’t produce as well and it’s a net loss for me,” he says. “By enrolling those acres in a program like CP33, I eliminate those costs and get the benefit of wildlife habitat. That’s a win-win.”

Advocating for Agriculture
Although Addie jokes that Joshlin is in production and she is in public relations, in reality, they both share their experiences with conservation and sustainability — both within the agricultural community and beyond — through various activities.

In 2017, the couple was among the first in Missouri to join the Soil Health Partnership, a farmer-led initiative that promotes the adoption of soil health practices for both economic and environmental benefit. Currently, a five-year strip trial is underway on the Yoder farm evaluating the impacts of cover crops.

“I was really excited to get involved and be part of the actual data collection,” Joshlin says. “We’re comparing ground with continuous cover crops right next to ground that doesn’t. The goal is to figure out what is actually going on within the soil. It’s a lot easier for a skeptic to believe when you have that hard data.”

The Yoders also are working the Missouri Corn Growers Association (MCGA) and the Missouri Soybean Merchandising Council (MSMC) to conduct a water-quality study. A monitoring station collects water samples from two field drainage tiles — one from a field with cover crops and one without.

“It’s been interesting. You can see a difference in sediment and nutrient loss between the two,” Joshlin says. “It’s made an impact on our management and the timing of our applications to make sure that we’re not applying just before a rain.”

In 2018, the couple hosted a filed day on the farm to share what was being learned and to inspire others in their community to embrace conservation.

“Working with the Yoders, I’ve seen how much dedication goes into making cover crops work,” says Abigail Peterson, field manager for the Soil Health Partnership in Illinois and Missouri. “I’ve always been impressed with how they build soil health practices into their operation, building soil resiliency for generations to come.”

Joshlin Yoder checks the outlet of a water-quality monitoring station on the family farm. The station is part of a demonstration project to compare differences in sediment and nutrient loss between a field with cover crops and one without.

Both Joshlin and Addie also have become involved with leadership programs that allow them to share their story beyond the farming community. In 2015, Joshlin participated in the MCGA’s CornRoots Leadership Academy, and Addie was part of the 2019 class of the National Corn Growers Association’s Leadership Academy. In 2017, they both attended the DuPont New Leaders program, which helps farming couples become better communicators, leaders and advocates.

Addie also shares the family’s story through various public speaking
events, podcasts, social media and her involvement with CommonGround, a network of farm women who work to have honest and real conversations with other women who aren’t involved in agriculture.

“Food is so emotional, and most Americans are just enough removed from the farm that they don’t have a person who can answer their questions,” she says. “With CommonGround, we bridge that gap between the farm and the grocery store.”

Farming for the Future
Just as Joshlin and Addie were able to join the family farming operation, both share a desire to provide that same opportunity to their four children — Aliza, 14; Hazel, 12; Scarlett, 10; and Linus, 7.

“He’s just in first grade, but Linus really loves the farm and being part of it,” Joshlin says. “One day, he told my dad that he can’t wait to graduate college
so he can come back and farm all day. My dad asked him if he wanted to be
a farmer, and Linus replied, ‘All day, every day.’ Hearing that and seeing his excitement just drives me to do the best I can with what we’re doing here.”

The Leopold Conservation Award Program in Missouri is made possible through support from the Ameri- can Farmland Trust, Missouri Farmers Care, Missouri Soybean Association, Missouri Soybean Merchan- dising Council, Sand County Foundation, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Missouri Cattle- men’s Association, Missouri Corn Merchandising Council, Missouri Department of Conservation, MFA Incorporated, Missouri Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts, McDonald’s and The Nature Conservancy in Missouri. To learn more, visit mofarmerscare.com/lca.

Find the entire February issue of Missouri Soybean Farmer here.