Fred Kirschenmann Interview Part 3

Uploaded by AFSICVideos on 20.06.2012

MS. GATES: I was interested to read that you have what seemed to me to be quite a number
of mechanical assistance in the way of tractors and combines.
MS. GATES: Do you have what you consider to be a fairly normal inventory of machinery?
DR. KIRSCHENMANN: Yeah. Some of our equipment is different from conventional farmers in
the area. We, for example, have a rotary hoe and a sweep plow or blade plow, which are
minimum tillage tools that are used for weed control systems and where most conventional
farmers would probably use herbicides to perform that function for them.
But in terms of our overall capital investment in equipment, we are very comparable to conventional.
MS. GATES: You have something called a "rock picker"?
MS. GATES: What does a rock picker do?
DR. KIRSCHENMANN: Well, the glacier was very kind to provide us with lots of field stones
in our fields, and frost heaves will continually bring those to the surface each year. So,
usually, every couple of years we have to go out and clean those off; otherwise, you
are going to be breaking equipment.
MS. GATES: They are just sort of kind of erupting to the surface.
DR. KIRSCHENMANN: That's right. Right.
MS. GATES: You think you get them all, and then there they are again.
DR. KIRSCHENMANN: That's right. Yeah.
MS. GATES: And you have something called a "swather"?
MS. GATES: Is that how you pronounce it?
MS. GATES: And I don't know what that is.
DR. KIRSCHENMANN: Okay. In some parts of the country, they are called "wind rowers." We
live in the mixed prairie grass ecosystem in North Dakota, which is very rolly. The
terrain, the topography is quite rolly, and so, consequently, the grains in the lower
lying areas will remain green longer than those in the higher areas.
MS. GATES: Okay.
DR. KIRSCHENMANN: And if you wait for all of it to ripen, so that you can combine it
directly, then you usually end up either having to combine some that is too green or some
that is already starting to break down because it's overripe. So one of the ways of dealing
with that is to cut it at a medium period of time, at a medium stage of ripening, and
then let it dry in the field, in the swaths, and then you come along later and pick it
up with the combine. That is just a way to really field dry the grain.
MS. GATES: And, of course, you have a manure spreader, I read, and combines and a loader,
a loader for the manure spreader?
DR. KIRSCHENMANN: Yeah. Right, right. And also for feeding the livestock. In the winter
months, we bring the livestock into feed lots because the weather in North Dakota gets too
much for them.
MS. GATES: I can imagine.
DR. KIRSCHENMANN: And so we use the loaders for feeding.
MS. GATES: You have also been quoted as saying that the two major expenses that you have
are hybrid seeds and energy, and I would like to talk about both of those a little bit.
Let's start with energy, though, because we were talking about machinery, and I was thinking
about assistance that you have from people, what kind of a crew do you have. Do you hire
during the season, or is it just you and your wife?
DR. KIRSCHENMANN: Well, my father is 81, but he still insists on being out on the tractor.
MS. GATES: Really?
DR. KIRSCHENMANN: Yes. During the summer months, he
MS. GATES: He is out there.
DR. KIRSCHENMANN: He helps, right. He provides part of the labor. My wife helps primarily
during seeding time, operates a tractor for us, and then also runs one of the combines
during harvest.
The only outside labor that we have hired is we hired a high school graduate a little
over a year ago that is with us year around.
MS. GATES: So you have 3,100 acres.
DR. KIRSCHENMANN: That's right.
MS. GATES: And there is essentially four of you, and not even four full time?
DR. KIRSCHENMANN: No, actually, it probably would amount to the equivalent of about two
and a half full time.
MS. GATES: Two and a half full time. That's most impressive. That means that you are pretty
energetic right there. But it is something that you consider to be a major expense is
the energy involved, and, obviously, you are talking about more than just human energy.
You are talking about fuel.
DR. KIRSCHENMANN: Fuel, diesel fuel, right.
MS. GATES: Diesel fuel, which given the climate we are in or the times we are in right now
is pretty horrendous.
DR. KIRSCHENMANN: Yeah. The energy actually, our energy consumption in terms of diesel
fuel has gone down, despite the fact that we make more trips across the field than conventional
farmers do.
MS. GATES: How so?
DR. KIRSCHENMANN: That's attributed to two things. One is that in this kind of farming
system, you can utilize a minimum tillage approach quite nicely. In a conventional system,
there simply are times when you need to use unless you rely entirely on herbicides, you
need to use things like a mobar plow to help with weed control, to bury the weed seeds
deeper and those kinds of things, so a lot of farmers use that as a strategy, which we
did when we were farming conventionally.
And then the other thing, the second reason is that our soil till simply has improved
to the point now where it doesn't require as much horsepower anymore to pull tillage
equipment through the soil, but we have actually reduced our fuel consumption by 20 percent
MS. GATES: That's impressive.
DR. KIRSCHENMANN: from the time that we were farming conventionally to what we're doing
MS. GATES: Let's talk about hybrid seeds, then.
DR. KIRSCHENMANN: Well, you know, hybrid seeds are one of those things that you can't get
around. You know, we can't produce those on our own farms, so you just have to buy those
and bring them in. We do try to use our own seeds in crops that we don't need hybrid seeds
in, like wheat and so on.
Probably every oh, on an average of every four or five years, we will buy a new variety
of seeds.
MS. GATES: I was going to ask you if you experiment.
DR. KIRSCHENMANN: So we try to stay current. We try to stay current with that, but once
we buy the new variety for some seed stock and then we rely on our own production again.
There are some claims made that seeds grown under these kinds of management systems against
conventional systems have more vigorous growth and so on. I don't know that there is any
really solid evidence to back that up, but we get good results from our own seeds, so
we try to use it whenever we can.
MS. GATES: It would seem that it would be something that growing in the place where
it is going to be propagated would make a lot of sense.
DR. KIRSCHENMANN: Sure, it does. It does make sense. All I am saying is I don't know that
we have any real hard evidence to back that up, but common sense would indicate that it
probably has some merit.
MS. GATES: I know that you have cooperated in at least one LISA project, the Low Input
Sustainable Agriculture project that the government funded, I think, two years ago or more.
MS. GATES: Would you talk a little bit about that, what did you do? You are the cooperating
farmer, is that true?
DR. KIRSCHENMANN: Yeah. Yeah. We actually only participated in that for one year because
then I got elected to the LISA North Central Administrative Council, and I thought it was
a conflict of interest.
DR. KIRSCHENMANN: And so I pulled out of the program.
MS. GATES: Uh huh.
DR. KIRSCHENMANN: But the first year, what we were trying to do and then part of that
research project was to find an alternative legume that would replace more traditional
legumes that had been used that would do a couple of things. We were looking for a legume
that wouldn't take as much moisture out of the soil because North Dakota where we are
has an average rainfall of about 18 to 19 inches, so we need to be very careful about
conserving our moisture.
One of the more traditional legumes, which is one, in fact, that we use on most of our
farm as a green manure, is a yellow blossom sweet clover, and you have to manage that
very carefully; otherwise, it will take too much moisture out of the soil and rob the
subsequent crop from its moisture.
So we were looking for a legume that would take less moisture. We were looking for a
legume that would perpetually reseed itself, so that once you seeded it, it would always
be there and continue to feed nitrogen and green manure to the soil.
That first year that I participated in the project was disappointing because it was 1988,
which was the severest drought on record.
MS. GATES: Oh, yes.
DR. KIRSCHENMANN: So we didn't get very much of a legume established. We worked with black
MS. GATES: I am sorry. I don't know.
DR. KIRSCHENMANN: Black medic is an interesting plant. It has actually been used quite successfully
as an alternative legume in the Palousen area in Washington and in areas of Montana. It
is a shorter plant, so, consequently, the reason that it won't take as much moisture,
and it does seem to do quite well in reseeding itself.
It has been a bit of a disappointment in North Dakota in that we are not quite sure it is
going to be winter hardy enough to survive North Dakota's winters, so the project is
still going on, and they are still looking for some other and experimenting with other
legumes. The research center in Carrington, I think they are dealing with 10 or 12 different
varieties on a small plot basis and then are gradually pushing those out onto farms and
trying to see how they perform on an on farm setting.
MS. GATES: Do you have any on your farm, black medic?
DR. KIRSCHENMANN: No, we don't now. We tried it that first year, and then we tried a second
experiment the following year, which was 1989, which was again a drought year, but some of
it survived in 1989. But since we are not participating directly in the program now,
we decided to pull back out of it, and we have just gone back to yellow blossom sweet
clover again. We have actually learned to manage that pretty well, that that is working
quite successfully for us, so there is not a big pressing need for us right now to look
for something else.
MS. GATES: I am interested in your use of the word "manage," to talk about managing
the yellow blossom sweet clover. What do you mean, "manage" the clover?
DR. KIRSCHENMANN: Well, the yellow blossom sweet clover is a plant that we are discovering
fixes the majority of its nitrogen by the time it gets to just the beginning of the
blossom stage.
MS. GATES: So it is still fairly early on.
DR. KIRSCHENMANN: That's right, and which at that point, it is usually 24 to 30 inches
high, and it reaches that height by the first week in June, so it's early in the season.
MS. GATES: And you would have planted it after frost, of course, in the spring.
DR. MADDEN: No, you plant it actually, it's a biennial, so you plant it with a nurse crop
to previous year.
MS. GATES: Okay.
DR. KIRSCHENMANN: So the thing that we have discovered is that the important thing is
to incorporate it into the soil at the right time, and that is just as it starts to go
into blossom. After it goes into full blossom, it really starts taking a lot of moisture
out of the soil. Traditionally, when farmers have used sweet clover as a green manure,
you know, they let it go to full height because, you know, you have more stuff to put in.
MS. GATES: Sure, it looks more impressive.
DR. KIRSCHENMANN: Right. But that's when it really takes the moisture out, and if you
don't get adequate rainfall after that, then you have robbed your subsequent crop from
the moisture it needs. So managing it properly means timing incorporation, so that you get
a maximum benefit in terms of the biomass that you are putting into the soil and the
nitrogen that you fix but not robbing it of the moisture that you need.
MS. GATES: Uh huh. Does it also mean appropriate timing of any kind of fertilizer that you
might be using, any kind of organic fertilizer?
DR. KIRSCHENMANN: Well, we don't use any off farm inputs anymore. We haven't since 1980
MS. GATES: I was thinking of manure.
DR. KIRSCHENMANN: Yeah, we do. And what we do in our rotation is we devote one year to
what we call a "soil building year," and that's the year when we incorporate the green manure,
and then we compost all of our livestock manure and we apply that during that same time. And
that gives us an adequate nutrient base, depending on the soil type, enables us then to raise
either three or four crops from that nutrient supply.
MS. GATES: And then you do it again.