by Tom Parker
In 2015, David Nees earned the Iowa Farm Environmental Leader Award for Sac County, Iowa. It was a big deal. Besides being recognized for his ability to creatively use modern equipment efficiently in an organic operation, for his decades-long focus on developing healthy soils, and for serving as a local leader to encourage other farmers to follow in his footsteps by building “success upon success,” he was told that the governor would be shaking his hand in a public presentation at the Iowa State Fair. Before that honor could be bestowed upon him, however, he was asked to name one thing that in his opinion made his farm unique. All that came to mind was that he had been doing it for 34 years. “You were organic before organic was cool,” he was told.
He hadn’t thought about it that way, but on reflection he decided the man was right. “Back thirty years you never heard of organic,” Nees said. “Now it’s pretty much mainstream.”
“Did your neighbors think you were crazy?” he was asked.
“Probably, but they didn’t tell me that.”
Nees’s farm, which he owns with his wife, Marla, was recently one of three Iowa farms included in a two-day bus tour sponsored by the Kansas Farmers Union as part of their “Thinking Outside the Box” series. The tours spotlight farms doing things differently, or, in the words of Nees, that “have the motivation to try different things and not be afraid of change.” Each farm—Rolling Acres Farm (Atlantic), David Nees Farm (Early) and Farm Sweet Farm (Harlan)—was chosen for their decades of experience and leadership in innovative production and marketing strategies.
The trip concluded with a tour of Farmall-Land USA, Avoca, Iowa, a 26,500 square foot museum featuring 150 International Harvester full-size tractors, pedal and toy tractors, artist’s prints, and other IH memorabilia. Funding was provided by the Kansas Center for Sustainable Agriculture and Alternative Crops, Kansas Farmers Union and a USDA NIFA Food Safety and Modernization Grant.
When the bus pulled into the driveway, Nees and his son, Andrew, introduced themselves to the visitors. The neat, tidy farm, consisting of 950 acres of row crops and alfalfa, was hemmed between fields of tall corn separated by a broad expanse of soybeans flowing to a distant horizon dotted with lazily spinning wind turbines.
“We’ve never had a year like this,” Nees said. “Normally I cultivate the corn twice, but this year the rains started up and the crops started growing. We were behind and the crops kept catching up, which is kind of amazing. This is the first year I can say that I didn’t get my corn cultivated the second time.”
Nees, whose father and grandfather both farmed, didn’t set out to follow in their footsteps. Instead, he took a job in construction after graduating from high school. He worked the trade for eight years until two opportunities presented themselves in tandem. The first was an offer to rent his neighbor’s farm; the second was notification of a public field day at a nearby organic farm. Intrigued, he visited the farm and came away impressed.
“I thought If he could do it, I could do it, too,” Nees said.
His interest in organic farming centered on his aversion to the use of agricultural chemicals. After his grandfather died of cancer when Nees was 10 years old, he was left with a deep suspicion that chemicals had been responsible. As he got older and started contemplating his future, he promised himself that if he ever started farming, it would be without chemicals.
His father supported his efforts to farm organically. After all, he told Nees, it was pretty much the way his grandfather had done it.
Success wasn’t immediate, but it has paid off in the long run. “Not to be bragging, but I haven’t had to use a bank in years,” he said. “When I started there weren’t any premium prices, but now there are. The prices are so much better than conventional farming. That’s one of the economic benefits or blessings that go along with it, that it pays better. It’s more work, but it pays off.”
Because their certification doesn’t allow treated seeds, spring planting can’t be started until the ground warms sufficiently. Planting usually begins around the middle of May. Three or four days after planting, they hit the fields with a coil tine harrow, and after the corn comes up they switch to a rotary hoe. “They’re not used much anymore,” he said.
Nees incorporates a five-year rotation cycle of oats, alfalfa hay, corn, beans and corn. “Basically, it’s 20 percent small grain, 20 percent alfalfa, 40 percent corn and 20 percent soybean,” he said. The alfalfa provides enough nitrogen to produce a corn crop the following year. His son, Andrew, uses a three-year rotation of corn, soybean and oats followed by alfalfa, which is used as a cover crop until it’s plowed down in the spring using a chisel plow. Producing their own nitrogen reduces their input costs for anhydrous ammonia, which can be as high as 32 percent, Nees said.
They fertilize with turkey litter in the fall using a vertical tillage machine called a smart till. The tines, he explained, can be adjusted from two-and-a-half to 10 degrees, and the harrow can be adjusted for the depth of residue left on top of the soil.
“When we put turkey litter on the bean ground that’s going to go to corn the next year,” he said, “we set it on two-and-a-half and it leaves most of the soybean residue on top. It makes a big difference.” For corn it’s set to 10 degrees to incorporate more of the corn stalks. The addition of chopping rolls for the corn head has sped up the process. “We go right in with this, hit it and we’re done,” Nees said.
Much of his equipment has been adapted or modified to perform more efficiently, especially when it comes to controlling weeds. His experimentation and implementation of innovative weed control methods has earned him high status among his peers. Earlier this year the Iowa Organic Association invited Nees and Paul Mugge to share their cultivation techniques, equipment recommendations and favorite strategies for keeping fields clean for a webinar on mechanical weed management. Mugge, an organic farmer from Sutherland, Iowa, is active in numerous organic, sustainable ag and environmental organizations. The You Tube video can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kIuQwLWG_KA.
Of all his specialized equipment, Nees’s flame cultivator attracted the most attention. Sporting an array of oxidized burners angled low to the ground at 45-degree angles and a skeletal frame burnished to a rich ruddy patina, it resembled nothing more than some form of mutant insect.
“It roars when it kicks on,” Nees said. “It’s hot.”
They fire up the cultivator when the corn is about a foot tall. The flames rupture water cells of weeds six inches or smaller without harming the corn. “It doesn’t just fry them to nothing instantly,” he said. “It’s done its job if you can leave a thumb print in a leaf.”
After setting several fence posts on fire, shutoff valves were added to the outside rows of burners. “When we have to call the fire department,” Andrew said, “it means that we couldn’t put out the fire by kicking dirt on it.”
Rather than just flaming the weeds, some farmers flame the corn when it’s real small, Nees said. “They’re actually burning the corn down,” he said, “and then it comes back. Some friends over in Nemaha tried that this year, and they said that the corn they didn’t flame was a foot taller than the other. He said the corn was a lot cleaner because it killed everything, but to me, having a nice stand of corn and burning it off, I don’t have the nerve to do that. You got to have a lot of faith to do that.”
He still thinks of his grandfather and how some things have changed while others seem timeless. “We have so many improvements from what he had back then, from implements to seed genetics and GPS for driving the tractor,” Nees said. “It’s a lot better than what grandpa had in that aspect. But it’s still basically crop rotation like grandpa knew. It’s the way he did it.”