Central Montana, it turns out, is having the best year for farms in recent memory, with round bales of hay in dense profusion on the landscape, luxuriant fields of barley undulating in the wind, thick stands of golden wheat ripening under the sun, and happy, fat cattle. Our first stop on our farm tour was a young farmer – Curt Myllymaki – on a large cattle and field crop farm (over 1000 acres) who is experimenting at scale with innovative crop rotations, dual cropping, and cover crops to restore soil fertility. We visited a field that was dual cropped with flax and chickpeas, as well as some stray sunflowers that “was left over in the seed hopper.”
Flax is grown for its seeds and oil, but of course flax is also the fiber source for linen. Curt showed us the nitrogen-fixing nodules on the chickpea roots. He felt that mono-cropping would one day become a thing of the past, as farmers will grow multiple crops in a single field that will complement and benefit each other, decreasing the necessity for pesticides and herbicides. Legumes, such as the chickpeas, provide nitrogen fixing capability, thus alleviating the necessity for applying fertilizer, and crops such as flax provide weed control and add organic material to the soil. This dual cropping is made feasible by innovations in processing that allow the flax-seed and chick-peas to be separated from each other at harvest. Curt was also enthusiastic about the disc drill – a piece of no-till planting equipment that allowed him to disturb the soil as little as possible, as well as the stripper-header i.e. a piece of harvesting equipment that allowed him to harvest the heads of wheat while leaving the rest of the plant standing. As a little side-benefit his dual cropped field with “left-overs” made for a charming bouquet of stray sunflower and wheat, along with blue-flowering flax, and tendril-ly chick-pea plants with their sculptural pods. Curt Myllymaki also showed us his cover-crop, which he plants on fields that are in a rest period from the more demanding crops such as wheat and barley. The cover crops will provide organic matter to the soil, litter to keep the soil cool in summer, as well as forage for the cow-herd that is rotated through the resting fields daily. His cover-crop mixture includes twelve different species of plants including fave beans, purple forage turnips, forage peas, collards, as well as, evidently, eight other species that I didn’t get down on paper. Looks like some kind of sorghum in the mix?
All of this is to say that the young farmers on the Great Plains are doing some really smart, interesting things to increase the sustainability of agriculture, which is a cause for hope and celebration.