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Stellar soil stewardship

National award for Henry County row crop producer recognizes family’s commitment to conservation
Story and photos by Sarah Geyer 5/1/2018


Mansfield’s Grant Norwood and his wife, Crystal, proudly work their family’s Century Farm, taking care to leave the land better for the next generation.
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For Grant Norwood, a fifth-generation row crop producer in Mansfield, conservation is as much of a family tradition as farming.

“On these rolling hills, if you don’t take care of your soil, it’s going to eventually wash away,” explains Grant, who, along with his father, Don, raises corn, soybeans, and winter wheat on 3,000 acres in Henry and Carroll counties. “Since my great-great-grandfather purchased this farm in 1894, our family has always been mindful of that. Each generation has done its best to leave the land better for the next.”

In fact, in the early 1970s, forward-looking farming partners Don and Grant’s grandfather, Douglas, were among the first in West Tennessee to incorporate no-till practices. In the 1980s, Don invested in a substantial water control project, building water basins and sediments on both farms he owned and rented.

When Grant joined the family business full-time 19 years ago, he quickly exhibited the same pioneering approach to conservation as his predecessors. While committed to continuing his family’s no-till and water control practices, the Murray State University graduate, with help from his wife, Crystal, has taken the lead to implement new soil-saving practices including cover crops, soil testing and variable-rate practices, and pollinator habitats.

This year, the Henry Farmers Cooperative board member received national recognition for his family’s stellar soil stewardship. The American Soybean Association (ASA) has named Grant the Southern Region winner of the 2018 Conservation Legacy Award.

“The farmers who receive this award are shining examples of how U.S. soybean farmers are dedicated and responsible stewards of the land,” says ASA President John Heisdorffer, who farms in Iowa. “[They represent so many] U.S. farmers [who] work hard to grow crops in a sustainable manner, with a focus on continuous improvement in their management practices.”

According to Grant, maintaining and creating water control structures and waterways on 3,000 acres is one of the most time-consuming of the farm’s conservation practices.

To date, the Norwoods have built more than 125 water and sediment control basins on the land they farm, both owned and rented. They plan to add four more in the next year. Where structures aren’t possible, they’ve created waterways to allow for proper water flow.

Like his father in the ‘80s, Grant depends on the National Resources Conservation Service for advice on what and where to build, but he does the work himself with his own equipment.

“The NRCS program has allowed the farm opportunities to incorporate many conservation practices such as water control structures, grass waterways, and cover crops,” he says. “Water control provides a benefit for more than just that farmland; the general public benefits, too, because in building these structures we are reducing the amount of run off and sediment in our streams and lake.”

One of Grant’s first conservation decisions as a full-time farmer was incorporating cover crops. He was introduced to the practice while attending a soil conference and returned to the farm committed to learning more about this technique with plans to implement it behind the next harvest.

Ten years ago, he and Don were among the first producers in their region to utilize cover crops, initially planting 350 acres with a three-species mix. Today most of their land with row crops — 1,450 acres of yellow corn and 1,550 acres of soybeans — is followed with either a five-species cover crop mix or production winter wheat.

For each field, Grant varies the ratio of the mix, which includes cereal rye, crimson clover, winter wheat, winter peas, and tillage radishes, based on the type of land and crop rotation. He says they’ve seen success with cover crops through a reduction in soil erosion, effective weed suppression, and an increase in the soil’s capacity to hold water.

“I use earthworms as a gauge for what’s happening below the soil’s surface,” he says. “My theory is that a good population of earthworms is a sign of soil health. I keep a shovel in my truck so I can check on my earthworms at any time.”

Although earthworms provide an instant soil check for Grant, the Norwoods also regularly soil sample using their own equipment, alternating half their acreage each year.

“[Having my own equipment] allows me to take samples more accurately because I am familiar with sudden changes in our land,” says Grant. “I am able to stay abreast of soil changes and know what nutrients need to be added in the fields for healthier soil.”

The soil sample data is also used with variable-rate technology for fertilizer and lime applications. They also variable-rate plant 100 percent of their corn acres using years of data.

Although soil health is important, Grant says he and his family are equally concerned about soil compaction. In an effort to reduce the impact of heavy machinery in their fields, they purchased a 1,000-bushel grain cart with tracks and have equipped their Hagie sprayer with float tires, too.

“We’ve combined our corn planting and nitrogen needs to a one-pass system,” he explains. “We apply all our nitrogen as a liquid with our planter in an effort to further reduce compaction.”

Two years ago, the trailblazers embraced a new conservation program through the Farm Services Agency (FSA). As part of the Pollinator Habitat Initiative, part of the FSA’s Conservation Resources Program, Grant and Crystal have committed nine acres of their farmland to the project.

Participating farmers are required to remove the qualifying land from production for 10 years, planting the acreage, instead, with a mixture of pollinator-friendly plants.

“The habitats benefit not only the pollinators but also the land itself,” says Grant. “The seed mix includes native grasses that over the years will help the soil rebuild.”

In addition to the Norwoods’ soil health efforts, the ASA award committee also acknowledged the farm family’s “green” practices, including using three-phase electricity for their grain storage site and installing a recycle bin for the farm and home and allowing neighbors to use it as a drop-off point.

Grant says he’s proud to be recognized by the ASA for his family’s continued commitment to conservation efforts.

“It’s vital to our longevity and livelihood,” explains the father of three: Karamaneh, 10, Caleb, 5, and Lauren, 3. “Our family’s focus on sustainability from one generation to the next is how we have been able to continue to farm the same land for five generations and, hopefully, many generations to come.”

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