A woman who owns farmland in South Dakota wrote to me recently and asked if she should be worried about her tenant. He wasn't rotating crops, she said. "Isn't a crop rotation recommended?" she asked.
I wrote back that yes, generally most Extension specialists and farm management consultants recommend that crops be rotated. I told her that some landlords write clauses into the rental contracts about rotations. Some require land to be no-tilled. Others want cover crops to the planted after harvest. She should get professional help with this, I suggested, so the contract reflected best practices in her area and didn't reduce the pool of farmers who would want to rent her land too much.
But I added that planting continuous corn isn't unheard of in the Dakotas. In fact, the farmers who won South Dakota's corn yield contest last year with more than 300 bushels per acre had grown continuous corn on the field for more than 20 years. They also feed cattle and they work as much manure back into their soils as environmental regulations allow.
I am passing this story on to you because the South Dakota Association of Soil Conservation Districts is launching a program to talk to non-operating landowners about soil health. They even commissioned a survey to see what they know about soil health practices.
The SDACD want landlords to talk to their tenants about soil health practices, such as rotating crops, reducing or not doing any tillage at all, planting cover crops, and grazing cattle on cropland.
That's good. Soil health is an exciting development. Landowners should certainly learn all they can about it.
But I think landowners need to be told there's never been one right way to farm. For example, government agencies and the farm press — including the Dakota Farmer — were among those in the late 19th century urging Great Plains settlers to break the sod and plant crops. We promised that rain would follow the plow. Droughts in the 1930s proved that theory to be completely wrong.
Bottom line: You should be the one talking to your landlords about how you are farming and how you are trying to improve their property.
If you aren't, he or she may hear from someone else.