David Brandt farms 1,200 acres in central Ohio, where he uses 14 different plant species as cover crops in the off-season, reducing his need for synthetic fertilizers and herbicides. And he never, ever tills his soil. He has been dubbed the Obi-Wan Kenobi of soil:
We start in Brandt’s field, where we encounter waist-high, deep-green corn plants basking in the afternoon heat. A mat of old leaves and stems covers the soil — remnants of the winter cover crops that have kept the field devoid of weeds. At Brandt’s urging, we scour the ground for what he calls “haystacks” — little clusters of dead, strawlike plant residue bunched up by earthworms. Sure enough, the stacks are everywhere. Brandt scoops one up, along with a fistful of black dirt. “Look there — and there,” he says, pointing into the dirt at pinkie-size wriggling earthworms. “And there go some babies,” he adds, indicating a few so tiny they could curl up on your fingernail.
Then he directs our gaze onto the ground where he just scooped the sample. He points out a pencil-size hole going deep into the soil — a kind of worm thruway that invites water to stream down. I don’t think I’m the only one gaping in awe, thinking of the thousands of miniature haystacks around me, each with its cadre of worms and its hole into the earth. I look around to find several NRCS people holding their own little clump of dirt, oohing and ahhing at the sight.
Then we cross the street to the neighbor’s field. Here, the corn plants look similar to Brandt’s, if a little more scraggly, but the soil couldn’t be more different. The ground, unmarked by haystacks and mostly bare of plant residue altogether, seems seized up into a moist, muddy crust, but the dirt just below the surface is almost dry. Brandt points to a pattern of ruts in the ground, cut by water that failed to absorb and gushed away. Brandt’s land managed to trap the previous night’s rain for whatever the summer brings. His neighbor’s lost not just the precious water, but untold chemical inputs that it carried away.
He also adds wheat to the ubiquitous corn-soy rotation favored by his peers throughout the Corn Belt:
Bringing in a third crop disrupts weed and pest patterns, and a 2012 Iowa State University study found that by doing so, farmers can dramatically cut down on herbicide and other agrichemical use.