Steve is a dryland farmer in Venango, Nebraska, where he also serves as the fire chief and county commissioner for Perkins County.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Steve Rosenzweig: You seem really motivated. What are you chasing, Steve?
Steve Tucker: Diversity. That's what we're after. Diversity to feed the system. It used to be monocrops. That was the big thing: monocrop after monocrop. Now we're getting into diversity, where we have more things competing with each other, but when they compete, they do better. It's no different in society when we have competition, great things happen. When you get it out here in Mother Nature, you got a diverse environment, better things happen to the soil. When the soil is better, the impact goes up and down the line, whether it's the soil biology, or the wildlife out in the field, or the end product that's going to a consumer to eat – diversity helps feed the system.
SR: And what does diversity mean to you?
ST: Diversity out here on the farm is having many different things. It's that simple, many different species in one field, and a diversity of crops across the spectrum. This country used to be wheat-summerfallow, which is nothing, so we could store moisture for more wheat. Well that system presented all kinds of problems. Now, I've got 10 different crops I'm growing, including a field of a multi-species plant mix out here. And when we put livestock into the system, that's more diversity into it. That's why we've got chickens, we've got pigs, we've got cows. The more diverse we can be, it spreads out the risk. One event happens - we have a hail storm come through - we can move on to the next thing. It's real simple. I don't know why we make it so complicated.
SR: So you’re about to start integrating livestock in your system. What’s that going to look like?
ST: What we're going to do is rotational mob grazing. Basically what that is, is doing just like what Mother Nature did years ago, when the bison came through this country. They came through, they ate half of it off. They didn't mow it to the ground, they just ate the tops of it off, and they moved onto the next where there's more green plants. And our grazing out here in this neck of the woods, it's so much different. We just throw them out there and give them an area and say, ‘that's what you got to eat.’ But what we're gonna do is start them on one area and gradually move them across the field. Once we get to the other end, we're gonna bring them back down, let that stuff regrow, and start over again. This stuff is durable, it's fast, it's gonna grow fast if we don't mow it to the ground, or let the animals eat it to the ground.
SR: So you’ve pushed the diversity in your system pretty hard these past few years. Have you seen any changes from that?
ST: Oh I do. We are starting to see more beneficial insects, things that we never saw before, things that are flying out here, we're starting to see less disease pressure, less insect pressure that are harmful to the plants. One thing you'll find out here is there's a lot of holes out here. When we no-till and when we have it diverse like this, the environment for all the natural wildlife habitat increases, and that just creates all kinds of different things going on out here. You know those things burrow in, they benefit the soil on top of it. There is all kinds of things that are really starting to evolve once we do no-till, once we do cover crops. Things are just getting better in just the short time we've been doing this – I don't know what's in store for the future. The question is what's next? I don't know, but it's exciting because you just keep asking questions.
SR: Is it scary trying new things?
ST: You never know if it's gonna work. And so some of these things you just gotta put in and try. And that's why we start small, but once you see the benefits, you see that it can work, we just go from there. The greatest challenge we face here in this is water retention and dealing with long spells of hot and dry, high heat. Times like that just stop production. But if we can keep the soil covered, we can do things with no-till to keep the soil covered, keep residue on it to help water retention, and that helps keep the soil surface cool. There are so many benefits to doing it the way we do it, because we know we're gonna face high temperatures, high heat, and drought conditions for extended periods of time. If we keep doing things like we are, the benefits are gonna be huge. And we're seeing that. I've never been more excited for what's coming in the future than right now. Every time we turn around there's more questions we can ask, and we search for answers trying to find out what's the next thing that we can do out here.
SR: What’s your ultimate goal?
ST: To build soil health. That’s what I'm about is building soil health, and what that looks like to each individual farmer, I don't know. But for me, it's about benefitting the soil microorganisms, because that world is so unexplored. But if we can get more things going in the soil, to benefit the plants, that system right there is fascinating. The biggest goal I have is trying to find a way to move away from all the synthetic things that we put into the system. I don't know if that will ever go away, but the more that we can move to that, and produce more nutrient dense food, that's better, higher quality - that's gonna tell me that the soil is in better shape, that's gonna tell me that we're headed in a better direction of food production for this country and for this area.
Steve Rosenzweig is a PhD Candidate at Colorado State University. This interview was conducted as part of a film project to document emerging innovations in dryland agriculture, which can be viewed here.
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