No Rain, No Till: Hamilton County Couple's Farm Growing
Jess and Laryce Schwieterman, two fourth generation (at least) farmers, wed in 1997 and began their life together farming in Southwest Kansas. “I grew up where my mother worked right alongside my father,” says Laryce. “That is what I wanted to do. We put a lot of hard hours in but we are not a slave to the clock; day in, day out 7am to 5pm.”
Farming in the north part of Hamilton County is difficult. The rainfall, or rather lack of rainfall, is a constant. “They say the rainfall here averages 16 inches but most years it is far less. In 2002 we had 7 inches and some places we farm had less than 1 inch. Hail storms are also a given,” says Jess.
And the equipment they started with wasn’t in the best condition either. “We had a pickup called Old Blue. We used to laugh that we filled the oil and checked the gas,” Laryce remembers.
With approximately 2,500 acres and of grain sorghum, wheat, and summer fallow, Jess and Laryce started something practically unheard of until recent years: no-till farming. “Basically, no-till is producing crops without any disturbance of the soil and leaving the most residue possible on the surface. Before the soils were broke out, there was 3% organic matter. The native sod had roots 25 to 75 feet deep. At Fort Hays State there are pictures of the sod that deep. Because of the breakdown of natural fertility, organic Nitrogen was produced. And that lasted approximately 20 years.”
Jess continues to explain that there is no natural fertility left in the soil. The soils they tested prior to no till were 1.2 to 1.4 percent organic matter. After no tilling for several years, it is up to 2.5 percent. “An increase in organic matter increases water holding capacity. You can go longer between rainfalls. And, in five to seven years of no-tilling, you reduce the [high] fertilizer rates.”
Today, their operation has grown to 7,200 acres, non contiguous, of which 480 acres are their own. They rotate crops of wheat, corn, grain sorghum, and sunflowers with one combine, two semis, a grain cart, row crop planter, a tractor,
an air seeder, and a self propelled sprayer. Because of no-tilling, Jess and Laryce are able to cover the acres themselves. Only two to three part time helpers are hired during harvest, usually cousins or uncles.
Also, their relationship with their landlords is very important. Jess and Laryce keep in touch with them by phone and update their landlords with their website www.jlfarmsonline.com. Many of their landlords have ridden the combine with them. “It makes us proud of what we do and we also know if it wasn’t for them our opportunities would be limited,” says Laryce.
As for organic, Jess is concerned. “Look at the long term, people still need to eat. There are too many people in this world, and not enough land for every farm to go organic. We need to get the maximum yield out of the land in the most efficient manner. And, if you compare a properly balanced plant off of a no till field with an organically grown plant, the no till plant would have better balanced nutrients.”
Jess adds, “Also, I see a lot of operations that claim to be organic, and I believe in buyer beware. I am sure there are good operations out there but if you are using hog manure from a place that uses antiseptic to clean or antibiotics that could kill the living organisms in the soil.”
Jess and Laryce graduated from Kansas State University in 1995. Jess graduated from the KARL program – Kansas Agricultural Rural Leadership. In KARL, Jess explored different parts of the state, visited our leaders in Washington, D.C., and toured Brazil. Jess serves on the local Cooperative board for the past 8 years. He is currently serving as the secretary. Jess and Laryce are member of the St. Raphael Church where Jess is on the finance committee and Laryce sings in the choir.
“The only drawback to our life is we bring work home with us. We talk about farming 24/7. When you live on the farm it is hard to disconnect from the business end. Sometimes, I would just like to talk about nonsense,” Laryce says.