Twenty-six years later: How one Kansas farmer became a convert and saved his soil

Joe Swanson’s turning point came in 1991.

The Rice County, Kansas farmer had just bought a Plains Plow, with 30-inch sweeps and a shank in the middle. It was designed to undercut weeds while leaving residue on his fields.

The field looked beautiful the day he worked it. That changed overnight.

“We had a 3- to 4-inch downpour,” he said. “I drove by that field the next day and every furrow, every 30 inches, had washed out about 6 to 10 inches, however deep I ran that shank. It made me sick.”

He realized his erosion issues would continue if he kept tilling.

“I said, that is it. We’ve been no-till ever since.”

On a May morning, Swanson stood in that same field that converted him 26 years ago, talking to a group of farmers during a No-Till on the Plains field day. His mission is to eliminate erosion and rebuild soil health.

The journey, he said, hasn’t been easy. But Swanson sees changes across his fields. He uses fewer inputs. His soils are healthier.

When he began no-tilling in the early 1990s, organic matter was at 1.9 percent. Today, it measures about 3 percent.

“I think we are on the right path,” Swanson said. “Are we completely there? Probably not. But we try our best to figure it out and get there.”

Changing his ways

Swanson said he and his father first tried no-till in 1973.

They had an International 400 Cyclo air planter with Acra Plant shoes and added weight on each row unit, among other adjustments. He used it to plant grain sorghum, sunflowers and soybeans. Back then, Roundup was new on the market at $60 a gallon.

“After two years, it fell apart,” he said of the planter. “It wasn’t meant to be loaded up like that.”

The erosion issues in the 1990s pushed him back into the practice. He became 100 percent no-till by 1996.

He implemented cover crops in 2000.

“We became very aware that, without the cover crops, a no-till system is not very active,” he said. “We have to have more diversity and intensity.”

Swanson’s operation nowadays includes crop rotations and cover crops while implementing livestock as part of his holistic farming methods. He also is bringing another generation to the farm with the same like-minded outlook—daughter and son-in-law Tove and Darin Brunk and their children.

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“In 150 years, we have already mined over 50 percent of the organic matter out of our prairie soils,” Swanson said. “What kind of path are we on? We can’t continue. We just can’t. We have to change our ways.”


Depending on the rotation, Swanson likes to plant a multispecies of covers.

For instance, the field that was part of the field day is planted to wheat. Once he harvests the wheat, he will plant what he calls a “smother cover crop” of mostly grasses like millets and sorghum-sudangrass that choke out weeds. He might graze that acreage once, then terminate it in September and plant a winter cover mix of peas, vetches, radishes, legumes and rye. Those fields are grazed through the winter.

Meanwhile, following grain sorghum this fall, he will plant cereal rye, which works well to fight weeds because of the allelopathic properties. It also adds organic matter and captures unused nitrogen.

Marestail won’t grow in cereal rye. While it won’t eliminate palmer amaranth completely, it does make it easier to control, he said.

Currently on his farm, he is “green” planting soybeans into the rye, then plans to kill the rye a few days later.

“We don’t like to terminate the rye until it starts to head,” Swanson said. “We want that rye to get some maturity to it, so it will last and hang around a while. We need that armor.”

He also is planting a companion crop of sunflowers with a mix of buckwheat, cowpeas, mung beans, rape and radish. This particular field was tilled until three years ago when Swanson started farming it. The sunflowers, which are deep-rooted, will help loosen the soil. Moreover, he planned his cover cocktail with beneficial insects in mind.

“This isn’t the time of year to plant radishes,” he said. “But they will do a lot of flowering. And that is the reason we want the buckwheat with the flowers. It will flower for eight to 10 weeks, and we are trying to draw in the beneficial bugs—the wasps that counteract the head moth in hopes we do not have to spray.”

Swanson uses a 40-foot John Deere air seeder with a 10-inch row spacing he bought new three years ago. They modified it by adding narrow-gauge wheels and added extra weights.

They will put sunflowers in one tank and the cover crop mix in the other, said son-in-law Darin, adding he wished it had a three-tank cart. “That would allow us to do even more.”

Tillage scars

No-till on the Plains field day participants saw first-hand the improvements in Swanson’s soil. 

Standing in a soil pit in the wheat field, dug for the event, Candy Thomas, the Natural Resources Conservation Service regional soil health specialist for Kansas and Nebraska, pointed to shovels of earth she dug that morning—one from a woodland area near the field; the other from the wheat field. The woodland soil, which she estimated a 5.5 percent organic matter, was dark black and crumbled.

“That is our goal,” she said.

Improving soil health takes time, Thomas said. She poured water into the side of the pit. It began to shoot out sideways 8 inches down.

Tillage created that platy layer, which can affect root penetration. 

“They are hard to heal,” Thomas said. “It took 80 years to get that platy there, and it’s going to take a while to build it back up. But building the organic matter back is what will get you there.”

Adding covers, diversity and lots of living roots along with livestock can increase organic matter by two-tenths of a percent a year, she said.

26 years of progress

While tillage scars are visible, Thomas saw promising signs. Roots are growing through the platy layer. Earthworms are abundant.

She held up a clump of wheat. The roots were covered with clinging soil. The sugars released by the plant are sticky, which are holding the soil next to the root feeding the rhizosphere.

It is a sign Swanson is releasing carbon back into the earth. 

Residue on the surface helps feed fungi. It also helps feed macrofauna.

“That is a good indicator of the microscopic fauna you can’t see,” she said. “So, if you see springtails, earthworms and some of the mites, those are things that show you are moving in the right direction.”

The soil health journey takes patience, Swanson said. He is glad he stuck with it.

“We are really starting to reap the rewards of almost no erosion,” he said. “We’re not all the way there, but we’ll get there.”

Amy Bickel can be reached at 620-860-9433 or [email protected].