Mike Werling is a fourth generation farmer in Decatur, Indiana. Farming is his lifestyle. He started with his father and now its in his blood. Mike started on his journey of soil health and conservation farming because he hated seeing erosion on his fields.
As a part time employee with the Allen County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD), Mike has learned that it’s hard for people to change their attitudes, and this lends to challenges in educating other farmers to adopt conservation practices. This does not altar Werling’s determination, though.
Some practices Mike incorporates are cover crops, no-till, grass waterways, water and sediment control basins, buffer strips around his upland areas, and drainage water management.
Werling’s motivation is to leave his soil better than how he found it. Enjoy the full interview with Mike Werling!
Where does your food come from? Many students across Indiana give the answer “the grocery store.” Although this is often true, the grocery store is not the starting place of our food. Farm Bureau’s Agriculture in the Classroom Program works with kids around Indiana teaching them about the origins of their food and why farmers are important. Through this program, Farm Bureau holds summer workshops for teachers and volunteers giving them ideas about how to teach agriculture in their hometown school systems.
The Allen County Soil and Water Conservation District had the opportunity to participate and lead a couple of sessions in one of the Agriculture in the Classroom workshops on June 1st at Huntington University. Mike Werling, a farmer and part time employee with the Allen County SWCD, lead a workshop on managing erosion. Erosion is a menace that has plagued agriculture for millennia. Werling used the slake test, a homemade rainfall simulator, and a purchased rainfall simulator to demonstrate different ways teachers can educate about soil health and erosion control in their own classroom.
The slake test shows the structural difference between soil in a no-till situation and soil in a tillage situation. It utilizes two class cylinders filled with water. Mesh wiring drapes like a hammock from the top of the cylinders and submerges in the water. For this demonstration, you must have two different dried peds of soil. One ped should be from a no-till field and the other from a tilled field. When the aggregates are submerged into the water and placed on the mesh wiring, the audience can see the difference between the tilled soil and the soil from a no-till field. The no-till ped will hold together, but the soil from the tilled field will break apart easily in the cylinder. Check out this video of a slake test!
The homemade rainfall simulator can be made out of 3 plastic, two-liter bottles with 1/3 of the plastic cut out of the side. One of the bottles should contain nothing but bare soil. The second bottle should be filled with soil, but covered with residue like straw, leaves, or sticks. The third bottle should contain growing cover crops (clover, annual rye, cereal rye, oats, etc). Water is then poured over the two-liter bottles. The bottle with bare soil will lose the largest amount of soil to erosion, the soil with a residue will lose significantly less soil because of the residue, and the cover crop soil will lose the least amount of soil when “rain” is introduced to it. Check out this video of a two-liter bottle simulator!
The Allen SWCD also shared a lesson on watersheds and water quality. Joelle Neff used an Enviroscape to teach about how water moves downhill and picks up pollutants in a watershed. Neff also taught a lesson called “Growing with Water” which uses data collected from the Water Quality Initiative Program to discuss why pollutants have varying impacts at different times in the year.
An Enviroscape is a model of a watershed landscape that funnels water into the landscape’s reservoir. The model has a farm, factory, nature preserve, golf course, construction site, neighborhood, water treatment facility, roads, and ditches. Pollutants such as fertilizers, pesticides, human and animal waste, oil, road salt, etc are introduced to the landscape. Simulated rain is then applied to the landscape. Students are able to see all the pollutants that have entered the reservoir after the rain. This tool has fairly easy clean up. You can remove the plug in the reservoir to drain water into the basin below.
Like mentioned earlier, “Growing with Water” uses data collected from the Fort Wayne Water Quality Initiative Program which has been collecting water samples weekly in Northeast Indiana and Northwest Ohio since 2002. Check with your local Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) to see if collect water samples in your area. “Growing with Water” teaches students about the quality of water in their area and the different pollutants that can impact their water systems. Growing with Water shows the variances of water quality in different seasons. Split your class into three different groups: spring, summer, and fall. Have each group come up with a list of what is happening in agriculture and with the weather in their season. Then, provide students a tracking sheet with the percentage of time that the pollutants were higher than they should have been. Have the students work in their groups to make hypotheses about reasoning for the pollutant levels based off what is happening in their season.
If you would like to use any of these demonstrations to teach in your classroom, give the Allen County SWCD a call at 260-484-5848 ext. 3.
Derek Thompson, a Noble County Farmer and NRCS District Conservationist, shared about life on the farm and the return on investment of incorporating conservation practices onto his operation in an interview with the Allen County Soil and Water Conservation District.
Thompson is a third generation farmer of a 1,000-acre grain and dairy farm. His family’s conservation journey started in the ’70s when his father tried out a no-till corn planter from the Noble County SWCD. Although not lead adopters, the Thompson family now incorporates no-till and VRT soil management into all their acreage because of their return on investment, time savings, and the pride that comes with restoring the soil and the land. Their other conservation practices include sidedressing nitrogen, buffers along ditches, grass waterways, cover crops, and planting green.
Although being a District Conservationist with the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) has played a role in the farm’s conservation journey, Thompson believes they would have still ended up exactly where they are even without his involvement with NRCS.
Soil testing is a valuable way for farmers, gardeners, and those with lawns to know what nutrients are already available in their soil, as well as what nutrients should be added. Not knowing what is already available in your soil, makes it easy to over-apply or under-apply fertilizers. Over application can cause negative impacts on water quality if runoff transfers the excess nutrients to waterways. Having too few nutrients in your soil can impede plant growth.
No matter what you’re growing, getting a soil test is important!
On Friday, May 14th, the Allen County SWCD and Purdue Extension partnered to teach soil testing to the first grade students at Washington Elementary School in downtown Fort Wayne. The students did an excellent job listening!
The class learned the importance of getting a soil test. Their faces lit up as they answered questions about how we can protect our water systems by keeping excess nutrients out of them. Excitement filled the school grounds as teachers, students and agency staff chose different locations to collect soil samples from. Each student was able to pick a spot from which to collect a sample.
The first graders not only learned about soil testing, but they also learned about the different textures of soil. The students got to feel examples of sand, silt, and clay, as well as play a game that taught them the different properties of these textures. Sand is the largest particle with lots of surface area. It feels course when rubbed between your fingers. It allows for good drainage and doesn’t hold water or nutrients very well. Silt is the medium-sized particle. It feels smooth like baking flour when wet. It doesn’t stick together, so it still has good drainage, but it is small enough to hold water and nutrients. Clay is the smallest soil texture. It sticks together when wet giving it a sticky texture. Much of the soil in Northeast Indiana has a heavy clay content. Clay does not drain water easily, sometimes remaining waterlogged and causing root rot in plants. On the other hand, clay soils are excellent at holding nutrients.
On April 13th, 2021, Derek Thompson, a local farmer and NRCS District Conservationist, shared his experience with no-till farming at Live from Avilla. This live, virtual event was designed to demonstrate the equipment modification necessary for a no-till operation. By taking a close-up look at Thompson’s planter, all thirteen participants learned what to pay attention to and what adjustments are necessary in this kind of system.
Thompson gave great advise for farmers who have not done much no-till but are interested in trying it. He suggested starting small. Throwing all your eggs in one basket may lead to frustration and disappointment. Asking lots of question to those around you that have no-till experience can help you avoid certain mistakes and can give you more opportunity for success.
Live from Avilla was sponsored by the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) through the Urban and Small Farms Program. The USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer.
The Allen County SWCD along with the Southwest Conservation Club (SWCC), Pheasants Forever, Quail Forever, Indiana DNR, and the Natural Resource Conservation Service partnered for a prescribed burn workshop. This workshop informed attendees about wildlife habitat and the various ways to manage it. It also gave a basis on who to contact, what permits are necessary, what to do in an urban situation, and what equipment is necessary to perform a prescribed burn.
Due to the inclement weather, we were unable to do a live demonstration of the burn, but attendees were still able to go outside and learn techniques and dive into the equipment. Both Jessica Merkling with InDNR and Ryan Owen with Pheasants Forever, Quail Forever, and the NRCS, did an amazing job presenting and gave great insight into performing a burn.
The SWCC Prescribed Burn Workshop was the first hybrid event that the Allen County SWCD had ever done, meaning it was both in person and virtual. We learned a lot through this event, and we’re looking forward to improve ourselves in both virtual and in-person events.
Below is the recording of this workshop. If you’re interested in doing a burn on your property, this is a great place to start!