By Matt Reese and Dusty Sonnenberg
Les and Jerry Seiler started implementing conservation practices on their Fulton County farm out of necessity, but over more than three decades, conservation has become central to the operation. This reality was showcased on the national stage when Les was named the National Conservation Legacy Award winner at the annual American Soybean Association Awards Celebration event during Commodity Classic on March 10, 2023. Seiler is the first farmer from Ohio to ever receive the award.
Les and Jerry have implemented a suite of farming practices to help mitigate soil loss and maximize soil health. Jerry said they have seen a huge improvement in the water infiltration through the years due to the extensive conservation practices implemented on the farm.
“Les is a big advocate for soil health. He’s really been pushing that and trying to use only things that promote soil health and are not detrimental to it,” Jerry said. “Back in the 80s when we first started taking over the farm, we had gullies and brown water in the creek. We just hated seeing that and we started implementing filter strips and waterways. Then we gradually started no-tilling and then using cover crops. Now we’re planting all green and keeping something growing in the field as long as possible, even in the winter. We’ve got around 40 different soil types and I think our fields are more uniform and better as we build the soil health.”
At the event in Orlando, four regional winners were recognized in the extremely competitive program and Seiler was announced as the overall national winner. The National Conservation Legacy Award is designed to recognize the outstanding environmental and conservation achievements of soybean farmers, which help produce more sustainable U.S. soybeans. A national selection committee, composed of soybean farmers, conservationists, agronomists and natural resource professionals, evaluated nominations based on each farmer’s environmental and economic program. The program was sponsored by ASA, BASF, Bayer, Nutrien, the United Soybean Board/Soy Checkoff and Valent USA.
Les said the recognition and the experience were humbling and memorable.
“I want to thank everybody involved for this — I don’t even know who all they were but there were a lot of people that must have taken a look at us and thought we were worthy of something,” Les said. “This started back at harvest time with one of my buddies, Hans Kok. He called me and told me to that he was asked to provide some names of people that would be good for this and he thought we ought to be on that list. I said, ‘Hans I really appreciate what you’re telling me, but I don’t know that we’re worthy of it and we’re pretty busy right now with harvest.’ So, he says, ‘Let me make this offer to you. If I help you with it, will you give me an hour or so on the phone and we’ll work through it? You guys really deserve it.’ I clearly remember him saying that. I’m not sure we are deserving, but I appreciate all that and I’m grateful. It was probably one of the best experiences of our lifetime.”
Les said the conservation efforts began out of a real need to save the future of the farm.
“We had so much soil erosion because we had a lot of poor soil health, and we couldn’t infiltrate water on the land anymore,” Les said. “We’ve seen the need to do something different besides the conventional farming practices of moldboard plowing and a lot of tillage.”
The brothers simply started out trying to keep their soil on their land by addressing erosion issues.
“My brother Jerry has been a big part of this. What we really started to focus on in 1986 was erosion on our land. We’re right up against the Ohio-Michigan line in the Fayette area, we’re in the Western Lake Erie Basin. We didn’t know at that time what the algae bloom really was, but we’ve learned a lot about it since then and usually about every July and August we hear more about it. We’re in the area where they’ve determined the Maumee River is one of the leading contributors to the problem. It’s been a big issue with runoff and soil erosion. When we started in ’86, we didn’t know what we were doing as far as conservation, but we needed waterways, we needed tile, we needed no-till. We got some cost share for a waterway that led to the need to no-till around it. We started doing that and just kept with it because we needed to fix erosion,” Les said. “In ‘96 we started strip-tilling. It offered a little bit of benefit, but in years where you had wet falls it was always a bigger challenge. It did seem to give us some opportunity, especially to deep place nutrients, that was a plus. We learned a lot about that and liked it, but it always took that special fall weather pattern to get it accomplished. We just couldn’t do it every year. Then in 2008-2009 when we started working with cover crops and we’d been continuously no-tilling before that, there’s where we finally found something that really complimented the other practices. We started working on mixes. We interplanted Austrian winter peas and radishes and that led us to think we needed more diversity on the farm. We put wheat back in the rotation and now we’re raising some malt barley and some alfalfa that we sell to an alfalfa mill. The diversity has increased our understanding about soil health.”
The addition of a two-stage ditch in 2014 helped significantly with water management on the farm.
“The ditch that runs through the farm is called Iron Creek and is 660 feet long. It has 11-foot of fall over that distance. The water would move quickly through a winding channel and that was constantly eroding the banks. We found ourselves constantly placing concrete along the banks to slow the erosion, but it would just push the problems further down the ditch every year,” Les said. “For construction of the two-stage ditch, we went up two feet from the channel and constructed a 35-foot-wide bench. It is a total of 30 feet from one side of the banks to the other with the channel winding through it. From there we went up to the top of the bank and reformed the banks with a 2.5- to 1-foot slope. The dirt that was removed during the construction of the two-stage ditch was able to be placed in low areas, and on the hillside that we were having to farm around, and now we can farm that hillside. A two-stage ditch can take a lot of ground, but we probably gained back as many acres as we lost in the construction of the ditch.”
The two-stage ditch has multiple functions for improving water quality.
“As the water moves through the two-stage ditch, it slows and that causes the sediment to settle on the benches. The increased vegetation on the banks also takes out some of the nutrients,” Les said. “When the water leaves the farm, it is moving much slower and has less sediment and nutrients than when it entered the farm.”
The two-stage ditch also fosters diverse plant species and pollinators.
“There’s so much value in bringing beneficial insects back into your picture,” Les said. “We know what slugs are but I don’t think we’ve ever seen a problem with them. We quit using neonics on our soybean seed years ago. We’re not spraying insecticides on the crop and being cautious with our fungicides when we use them.”
All of the pieces implemented by the Seilers are working together for a more productive farm for the future.
“This whole thing is connected. We’re trying to mimic Mother Nature,” Les said. “When we constructed the ditch, we had bare banks that needed vegetation established to protect them. The vegetation has tamed down the speed of the water running through the ditch, and the diverse species of plants also provide a habitat for pollinators. The diversity of plant species in the ditch, the diversity of cover crops we raise and trying to have something growing year-round, our cropping rotation, and the diversity of insects and pollinators we see all work in conjunction with each other. We believe soil health is very important along with all the practices we have in place help to improve water quality and the environment.”
What a great article Matt and Dusty!