Brother Renner looks over the fields surrounding St. Charles.

Faith in conservation

With harvest in Ohio wrapping up, most farmers are focusing on yields and the visible results of what they were able to produce from the soil. For most, this focus on production is considered the norm and the standard that success and progress is measured against.

In Celina, Brother Nick Renner looks at things a bit differently. He is more focused on what is going on underground. Growing up on his father’s farm, Renner developed a passion for agriculture and a great appreciation of the land. He later became involved in the Mission of the Precious Blood as a Brother and took on the role of managing the 1,100 acres that surround what is now St. Charles Senior Living Community.

During his 43 years caring for the land, he learned a lot about the soil, the nutrients it holds and most importantly, that it has a life of its own. Paying attention to the effects of production practices on soil makeup and nutrient contents, he has developed a great concern for its use in future generations.

“If you think out past yourself, 50 to 100 years down the road, you know we have to pass it on to the next generation. We can’t give them nothing, we’ve got to give them something worthwhile,” Renner said.

With the Mercer County area being made up of highly erodible sloping soil that had undergone years of plowing, the fields were losing too much topsoil. When looking at best practices to sustain the land, he

Brother Renner holds a tillage radish.
Brother Renner holds a tillage radish.

reflected on the days of farming with his father when they had a five-year crop rotation of corn, oats, hay, pasture and wheat. The number of years between the nutrient intensive corn crop allowed the land to regain essential nutrients.

“We started growing a lot of hay and wheat just to keep the fields covered and that helped,” Renner said. “We didn’t know too much about no-till and cover crop at that point, but around 1975 we started doing some no-till and in less than 20 years we were near 100%.”

Noting that even though it takes time to biologically change the soil over, Renner said yields were coming close to those achieved with conventional methods. As he gained more knowledge, he began implementing cover cropping as well on the acres at St. Charles.

“Now I rent all the farms out —1,100 acres divided between 11 different local farmers. We do have cover crops in our contracts,” Renner said. “Being a farmer and loving the land, working it all those years, you just see things you can’t always put it in words. You just see things you didn’t see in the beginning when you were younger.”

With his years of experience farming the land, Renner has realized the soil needs to be protected or it is in danger of becoming sterile. Bacteria, microbes and earthworms need a chance to live and break down organic matter in the soil to provide a better aggregate. Ideally, the soil would just fall apart when you dig it up with a spade, the particles rolling off each other free of compaction.

On the other hand, farmers are feeling the ever present need to increase production and efficiency. Often, the solution involves larger equipment, which contributes to compaction, and an increased strain on already scarce nutrients to yield more crops from each acre. While the agricultural industry has a good handle on the science behind the vital roles that phosphorous, potash and nitrogen play, Renner believes we need to know more.

“We never really studied the biology of the soil; universities never taught us enough of that,” he said.

He goes on to point out the importance of understanding how the Earth works so we can work with it instead of pushing our own way at the Earth’s expense. Looking at the biology of the soil, it needs to live year round. Even when it appears to be dormant, the soil is still taking up nutrients and needs a live root or plant base to sustain life beneath the surface.

“Now we have all these fields baron in the winter and we’re just killing the life in the soil by knocking their house down all the time with tillage. Then the rain washes away the topsoil which is really the bread basket of the world,” Renner said.

With traditional cash crops, the soil is only active four to five months out of the year. If left baron, it spends the remaining months letting go of our fertilizer and the Grand Lake St. Mary’s Watershed is a prime example of the resulting issues.

Grand Lake has seen a recent jump in phosphorous levels that have promoted the growth of toxic blue green algae and depleted oxygen supplies for aquatic life. Renner has been heavily involved in working to find a solution to the situation that has evolved from a combination of agricultural fertilizers and commercially treated lawns as well as contribution from some improperly managed or outdated septic systems in the area.

While he may be retired from farming, Renner is still heavily involved in agriculture in the Mercer County area and throughout the state. In addition to currently serving his third term as a supervisor for the local Soil and Water Conservation District, he also works 10 to 15 hours a week as a private consultant for The Ohio State University. The work aligns perfectly with his passion for conserving the land with the implementation of waterways, filter strips and edge of field monitoring; much of it related to improving Grand Lake St. Mary’s.

“We’ve done a lot, I’m very proud of them. We have a156 livestock producers in this 57,000 acres that goes into the lake. They all have a Certified Nutrient Management Plan (CNMP), except one we’re having a few issues with, but we did them all in two years. It was a lot of work in our office and a lot of participation and cooperation with the farmers,” Renner said.

With a CNMP in place farmers are required to have soil samples, records of when and how they haul manure and even the weather forecast for that day. They are not allowed to haul any manure from Dec. 15 through March 1 or when there is more than half an inch of rain predicted in the next 24 hours.

Complementing the detailed nutrient management is increased participation in cover crop practices.

“We’ve got a lot more cover crops, it’s an education, it’s slower then I like, but we see more being added all the time,” Renner said.

Working with a variety of cover crops, Renner knows just what to recommend to compliment the next crop in the rotation or to improve a certain quality of the soil. He recommends cereal rye to build up organic matter for soybeans. Another favorite is the tillage radish, which is made up of 80% water with deep and wide roots that basically disappear by spring to leave large holes in soil and reverse the effects of compaction.

His efforts over the years have recently earned him recognition on both the local and national level. In October, he received the Archbishop Vincent O’Hara Award from the Catholic Rural Life Conference, which is headquartered in Iowa and includes more than 100 dioceses across the country. The conference was started in 1925 to address concerns about rural life and farmers. There is only one award given each year and Renner was unaware of nomination until he received the news that he was selected to receive the honor.

At the same time Renner received the O’Hara award, Governor Kasich issued an honorary award for his efforts and he is slated to receive another award from the Ohio No-Till Council later this year.

But Renner’s not one to bring up the awards on his own, truly humble and dedicated to his passion of rebuilding the soil for future generations he sums up his goal simply: “I just want these farms that I’ve worked on and managed to be healthier when I’m gone then when I came.”

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