LAKE CITY – If things had turned out differently and there had been no 1980s Farm Crisis, there’s a good chance Mark Schleisman might have become a banker.
Instead, he became a crop consultant in Nebraska and grew an agribusiness career that has led him back home, where his conservation practices in his family’s crop and livestock operation near Lake City have earned him the 2018 National Conservation Legacy Award.
The Conservation Legacy Awards program recognizes soybean farmers’ outstanding environmental and conservation achievements. The American Soybean Association (ASA) presented Schleisman with this honor at the 2018 Commodity Classic in Anaheim, California, this winter.
“For previous generations, anything less than the plow was conservation,” said Schleisman, 53, who operates M&M Farms with his wife, Melissa, and their family. “There weren’t a lot of tools and options, though, for conservation back then. As we look ahead to the next 50 to 100 years of farming, we need to find better ways to enhance biodiversity in the soil and protect the environment, plus the farmer still needs to make money.”
This holistic approach to sustainability defines M&M Farms, which is located in the Elk Run watershed, a tributary to the Raccoon River. The operation includes 4,500 acres of crops, including 2,000 acres of popcorn; 400 cow-calf pairs; and a wean-to-finish swine operation that produces approximately 30,000 hogs each year.
Here’s a look into Schleisman’s conservation journey and the ways he’s learning from the land.
What did you enjoy about growing up on a farm?
“I liked spending time my dad, Larry, and my uncles, Jerry and Kenny, who farmed nearby. We worked hard, ate meals together and we’d talk, not text. Everything was more local then. I remember stopping by the co-op and visiting for awhile while before we headed out to check the cows. I liked growing up in a farming community, and knew I wanted to come back to the farm someday.”
How did your agribusiness career influence your farm management philosophy?
“I learned a lot during my time in corporate America, starting with my first full-time job out of Iowa State University as a Servi-Tech crop consultant in Lexington and Gothenburg, Nebraska. I worked with farmers who grew irrigated corn, sunflowers, popcorn and more. I later worked for Conagra, first on the agronomic side of popcorn production in the Midwest and later as a plant manager.
“About 80 percent of my time in corporate America was spent on the road, which opened my eyes to many different ways of farming and running a business. It was clear you not only have to make enough money to pay the bills, but you must focus on continuous improvement. That’s part of sustainability. Instead of saying, “We’ve always done it this way,” you look for ways to do things better.”
What motivated you to begin your own conservation journey?
“I wanted to manage the lower producing areas of my farm better and make them more profitable. This is much easier with modern tools like mapping and variable-rate technology. Sometimes the best solution is to take those acres out of production and enroll them into the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). These acres can provide wildlife and pollinator habitat.”
What benefits have you seen from conservation practices on your farm?
“Cover crops have been one of the biggest successes. For more than 20 years, my dad and uncles used about 70 acres of cereal rye to calve on. We didn’t call it a cover crop back then, but that’s what it was. Starting in 2011, I’ve expanded those 70 acres to about 1,300 acres of cover crops, with about 70 percent being grazed.”
“My family and I have worked with Practical Farmers of Iowa to quantify the value of our cover crops, including 598 acres of cover crops in 2015-16 that were grazed.”
“PFI has determined that our cover crops (which include cereal rye, triticale [a cross between rye and wheat], radishes, rapeseed and more) equate to 570 tons of dry matter. In 2017, we figured this would amount to about $28,801 if you had to buy this back as hay. That’s $39.99 per acre, which amounts to about $73 per cow.”
“Water quality is also important to us. I know from living near the Raccoon River that water quality has improved since I was a kid. I’ve worked with the Iowa Soybean Association to install a couple edge-of-field practices to cut nitrate contributions to the Raccoon River, including a saturated buffer. This stores water under field buffers by diverting tile water into shallow laterals that raise the water table within the buffer, slowing the outflow.
“The other edge-of-field treatment process on our farm is a bioreactor. It has a buried pit filled with wood chips (a carbon source), and tile water is diverted through these chips. The carbon provides a food source for microorganisms. The microorganisms use nitrate to metabolize the carbon, and this converts the nitrate to harmless atmospheric nitrogen gas. I’ve seen nitrate levels entering the bioreactor running around 15 to 22 parts per million (PPM), and it’s exiting the bioreactor at less than 1 ppm.
What are some of the most valuable resources that help you apply more precision conservation practices to your farming operation?
“I appreciate the Iowa Soybean Association and the ways they help farmers with conservation and water quality. I also like working with SciMax Solutions from MaxYield Cooperative. They help summarize a lot of field data, which makes it easier for me to use precision ag technology to better manage nutrients for my crop’s needs.
“The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is also good about helping you understand conservation programs and what cost-share dollars are available.”
How do you advise other farmers who want to implement more conservation practices?
“Attend farm meetings, explore new conservation methods and learn more about biological activity in the soil. Also, try new conservation practices on a small scale. Try one field at a time so you can tweak things to fit your acres. Conservation works best when you take a systems approach, rather than doing things willy-nilly.
“Also, teach the next generation. I’m glad my son Matthew and my son-in-law, Colby Winter, are willing to incorporate more conservation into our farm. I want this operation to continue for future generations.”
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