Nathan Wilson has been working on the farm since he was first able to drive a Ford 8N back in the 1940s.
“I grew up with the opportunity to farm because my dad was busy and we had 130 acres and a Ford 8N. He hired some help but there was always something for me to do. I think I drove that tractor before I started school. Back then there were always jobs to do for a little kid on a Ford 8N. I was disking when I was 7 or 8. I had an early start and always loved it,” Nathan said. “My dad was always interested in the soil. When dad got out of the service he started a large animal vet clinic in Circleville and bought a farm. The first thing he did was divide the farm into four fields with a four-year rotation of corn, wheat and two years of hay. We would do moldboard for corn and disk it for wheat and then plant the orchardgrass with a drill and broadcast clover.”
With his early start, Nathan also had some early lessons in soil quality and conservation on the Pickaway County farm.
“Our soil was very good, mellow and soft. It is Kokomo and Miami with some Crosby and we found out that can get hard. Dad decided wheat wasn’t a good moneymaker and he planted corn in wide rows 60 inches to get light down in the canopy and we pulled a modified drill at the last cultivation when the corn was knee high and planted the hay crop in the rows, mostly orchardgrass. The corn yields weren’t any good with that. He’d plant two years of corn and do that on the second year so it would be two years of corn and two of hay with no wheat in the middle,” Nathan said. “In one year of tillage after we dropped the wheat from the rotation we went through with the second cultivator and we had to put weight on because it was just skimming the surface. Dad was disgusted. It was a realization for both of us that things were different. It was the second year of tillage before corn. That would have been in the 1950s.”
Wilson took over the farm after his father died, feeding livestock and using the manure for fertility and continuing to farm the land. He was interested as more work was being done on no-till and he started experimenting with tillage reduction in the 1970s.
“When I started farming, we moldboard plowed everything. We tried some reduced tillage without a whole lot of success at first. I started no-tilling in the 1970s. The biggest promoter of no-till for me was the John Deere MaxEmerge planter because of the way it worked. Before they had the gauge wheel behind the seed opener and they had a packer wheel back there to close the furrow and control the depth. The new planter got good ground penetration and depth control. The change that made it work was the MaxEmerge system that put the gauge wheels for depth control beside the seed disks,” Nathan said. “In 1974 Deere released the 7000 and 7100 MaxEmerge planters and that was around when I started trying some no-till. I was reluctant to do the whole acreage. We always thought we had to plow the darker soils with more residue. When we started we were doing double-crop soybeans and we’d no-till those. That gave us confidence to do more because it worked so well. If you till soybeans, they are tricky and to me it is easier to get a good stand in no-till than it ever was with tillage.”
Nathan gradually, but steadily, reduced tillage over the next decade.
“In 1983 they had something called the Payment-In-Kind, PIK, program. That was a government set aside program and we didn’t plant crops on 600 acres. We just had to control the weeds. After the program we planted that 600 acres. We had to mow it and the next year we went in and planted without tilling. In 1987 we were still plowing our heavy ground with corn stalks and that is pretty much when we quit tilling. I have a good bit of ground that has not been plowed since ‘83 except in extreme circumstances where we put in tile,” Nathan said. “Then in ‘87 my uncle retired and rented his land to me and that increased our acreage and the no-till allowed us to just use the equipment we had and that saved us a lot of money. It still does.”
Nathan Wilson and his sons were named the 2017 Outstanding No-Till Farmers at the Ohio No-Till Conference in December for their efforts and dedication to soil conservation in a tradition started by a veterinarian and a little boy on a Ford 8N.
“Dad was willing to try anything. We tried just about anything that would come along. Veterinarian was his profession but he really liked the farming too,” Nathan said. “The no-till to me is so important. We don’t get the runoff and don’t lose the soil. It is a good system. It saves money on investment into the crop and it works. And the cover crop is not easy. You have to get it planted and in the spring it makes more timing challenges. It also adds expense, but we think it is worth the expense. This saves money and it is better for the soil, but we farm this way because this is the way we want to do it.”