I didn’t have an agriculture degree when I returned to my family’s farm in Porter County, Indiana. I had a business degree with a concentration in accounting. Once I started working with Dad growing corn and soybeans, though, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

When I started farming full-time 19 years ago, I learned from Dad and from reading articles in agricultural magazines about what other farmers were doing. One thing that caught my eye was a no-till conference. I went to it for a couple of years, but I didn’t implement anything on the farm. It was still Dad’s operation, and I was just working for him. He’d given me a little ground to operate, but I would need the right equipment.

Finally, I decided either I should be done going to the conferences or I should at least try something because every spring, when we plowed the fields, I watched the wind blow away our soil. It would be like a dust bowl—a mess. I felt I needed to try something.

At the time, my soil and water district was doing a cost-share program for buying cover crop seed. I used that to buy wheat as a cover, to plant between seasons of corn and soybeans. Then I got connected to my local Natural Resources Conservation Service office and started using the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. The EQIP funding helped me buy equipment I needed to modify my planter so that I could no-till, planting right into the green cover crop.   

It's not easy to step out and do something different on the farm. You question whether it will work. Am I wasting my time and money? The equipment you need is expensive, and there’s no guarantee you’ll like it. If you have landlords, which we do, you’re nervous about hurting yields. You’re not just messing with your pocketbook. You’re messing with theirs. Will they let you stay and farm their land? If not, you’re pretty much out of business.

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The hardest person to convince was my dad, but he could see a difference when we started reducing tillage. The dust didn’t blow as bad.

Then, one day, NRCS came out with a soil probe. They took a sample of the soil from a farm where I had been using cover crops and a sample from his place, where we had not. There was a huge difference in how that soil probe went down into the ground on the land that had cover. My dad became a believer. He’s retired now, but I feel like he completely approves of everything I am doing.

I am happy doing it, too. I know I’m doing what’s right for the land to be more productive in the long term. Even if I’m farming on someone else’s land, I want to build the soil health for myself and for whoever comes next. I see the soil improving. I see more earthworms. I see the structure improve, and I know that’s not just good for the farm. It’s good for water quality and for storing more carbon, all things society needs.

I love nature and being in it and all around it. I love conservation, and I lucked out because our farm, which has some acres that butt up to the Kankakee River, is more suited to conservation than farming.

We have been able to participate in NRCS programs that provide habitat for bats, bees, native flowers, sparrows, and other wildlife. It’s small scale, but being able to receive funding for putting those acres in conservation instead of farming helps us justify the decision from a business standpoint. It works out great for the wildlife and everyone. 

As Congress discusses the place of climate-smart agriculture, I hope they protect it. The EQIP funding was the stepping stone to get me into being able to no-till. It gave me the ability to take that risk. Farming is already a risk. If you want farmers to take on more risk, they need some support.

Farmers don’t want erosion. We want nutrients to stay where they’re useful, not going down the stream. But it’s not easy to make the changes. We’re all in this together, right? We always want people to try to do our best. Climate-smart agriculture and technical assistance help us succeed.

Brad Hunter lives and farms in Porter County, Indiana.