The first year the Mold family practiced vertical till on their farm fields, the sight of all that corn residue made Craig Mold skeptical that his soybean crop would emerge.
“I didn’t know how those plants could come up through that thick mat of residue. My daughter, a soil scientist, told me to go on a two-week vacation or just to close my eyes and not even look at the fields for a while. It was that concerning!” he said.
That soybean crop did eventually emerge successfully that year, and it started Craig Mold and his son Andre down a path of expanding their experiment with vertical till on their 1,000-acre corn and soybean operation near Rush City.
Over five years later, their journey has realized many benefits, largely improving their efficiency by enabling timely planting and harvest – something that’s very important when it’s a two man operation. They don’t spend as much time driving a tractor, saving fuel and labor costs. Their equipment has less wear and tear from the reduced field passes, saving money on maintenance and upkeep. The improvements they’ve seen in their soil structure by only tilling the top couple inches of soil has also made their fields more resilient to change. They have less soil erosion, less soil compaction, and greater water infiltration that has improved trafficability of their equipment after extreme downpours. And while they haven’t necessarily seen larger or improved yields from their crops, they haven’t seen a decline either.
“The benefits are there. And it means that we’re keeping our most valuable assets – our soil and the nutrients we input – on the field and not washing them away into the nearest river,” says Andre.
A generation of farming
Craig’s father first purchased 120 acres in the area in 1954. The family started with 35 cows and growing corn, hay, and small grains. Craig remembers several other dairy farms in the area at that time, but as the decades passed, many of those other families started to disappear as they left farming. Craig’s family continued to build their operation by buying land as it went up for sale. They stopped farming with cows in the mid-2000s and now grow corn and soybeans.
“A lot has changed since the 1950s,” says Craig. “Then, our 120 acres made enough to support the family and send two kids to college. Now we need 1,000 acres to support two families.”
Conventional tillage, where plowing the field after harvest and before spring planting overturns and buries residue into the soil, was the established practice at the time. Craig had it drilled into him at an early age that any residue left behind was a problem.
“I remember at seven years old that if I left behind a cornstalk, my dad would tell me to get out there and bury it. We didn’t call it residue – we called it trash.” he says. “You get really used to seeing black dirt and thinking that was the way to do things.”
Transitioning to reduced tillage
The move to try vertical till on the Mold family farm was a decade long culmination of new knowledge, evolving technology and programs, and interest from ‘the younger generation.’
“After we sold the cows, I started joining boards because I was just interested in what was going out there and wanted to learn more. I joined the Chisago Soil and Water Conservation District board and started hearing more about programs that would provide cost-share for trying different conservation tillage practices.” he says.
Initially, he said he didn’t see much momentum for those programs.
“People have been trying no-till and reduced tillage for decades and many people failed because they just didn’t have the right equipment to make it work. With the evolution of technology and equipment, those practices have started to make more sense for a production ag farmer,” he says. “Still, deciding to change equipment can be expensive and risky, so having those cost-share programs where you are able to mitigate some risk as you try something new are really great.”
But the largest factor that convinced Craig to ‘give it a go’ was the influence of his children.
“Both Andre and Jennifer were interested in giving it a shot. I don’t think I would have gone in this direction without their encouragement and help. Now I’m used to seeing residue on the fields and it doesn’t bother me at all.”
Getting a thumbs up from the state
Transitioning to vertical till also was the last management adjustment the Mold farm needed to qualify as a Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certified Farm. The Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program (MAWQCP), signed into statute in 2013 and rolled out statewide in 2015, is a voluntary program where farmers can take the lead in implementing conservation practices that protect water. Currently, over 1,270 producers and nearly 1 million acres have been Water Quality Certified in Minnesota.
Aside from the recognition of certification, certified farms receive regulatory certainty – they are deemed to be in compliance with any new water quality rules or laws – and they receive priority for specially designated technical and financial assistance.
The Molds initially connected with their local MAWQCP specialist, Ryan Clark, who helped assess their current operation. They were very close to achieving the certification due to their efforts of restoring a wetland on a portion of their land, practicing efficient nutrient management and integrated pest management strategies, installing erosion control structures, and installing a buffer on a public watercourse. Adopting vertical till helped push them over the edge for certification.
“It’s a great program. It offers flexibility and understands that each farm operation is different,” says Craig. “We’ve enjoyed working with Ryan.”
Looking beyond the farm fields
In many ways, Craig feels that programs like the MAWQCP not only help farmers protect their soil and downstream water quality, but it also helps fight the perception that farmers don’t care about water pollution.
“There has been a history of finger pointing between farmers and folks who live in more developed areas and on lakeshores on who is responsible for polluting the water,” he says. “With programs like the MAWQCP, people can see farmers stand up and do what we can to protect water quality.”
In his 20-year tenure as a Chisago SWCD board member, a role he just retired at the end of 2022, Craig feels that more people have started to work together versus just point fingers.
“Around the lakes, you see people recognizing that they have a part to play to reduce pollution. Lots of lakeshore buffers have gone in as more people realize that mowing and fertilizing their grass to their shorelines isn’t great for water quality or habitat,” he says. “In many ways it’s the same battle of perception that farmers are dealing with – you get used to seeing a landscape a certain way, and it can be hard to change even when you know that it’s not the best way to manage the land.”
Craig looks to the younger generation to help further move the needle forward on conservation.
“Younger people aren’t afraid to try new things and as we learn more, we can do better. It’s nice to see,” he says.
Watch the full interview with Craig and Andre on YouTube:
Barbara Heitkamp is a water resources educator for the East Metro Water Resource Education Program and the Lower St. Croix Watershed Partnership. A trained river nerd turned science communicator, Barbara enjoys the outdoors, kayaking, crafting, reading, and hanging with her family and close friends.