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Minnesota Farmer Dave Legvold Preaches Restorative Farming
Words like conventional and organic don’t have a place on Dave Legvold’s farm. Those labels don’t apply for the Northfield, Minnesota, farmer who has been called an unconventional conventional farmer. Instead, he practices what he preaches: restorative farming.
A retired teacher, Legvold views soil management as a cycle. He adopted this approach because he wanted to treat the land ethically and gently. When he started farming in 1976, he assumed that meant farming with organic practices, but he quickly found what he calls the soft underbelly of organic farming: tillage.
“All of the tillage was doing considerable damage to the soil,” explains Legvold. “I watched the soil washing and crusting, and I realized it wasn’t good.”
He knew a drastic change was necessary.
“It was a sense of having to be true to the ethics I was teaching,” says Legvold. “It’s about taking care of soil and water. We’re going to have to feed a lot more people with the resources we have now.”
Dave and his wife, Ruth, have two sons, Michael and Mark, and six grandchildren. Legvold’s goal is to leave the ground in better condition than when started farming it.
His restorative farming focuses around soil management.
- Ensure that field hydrology is functioning properly. He adds field tile where necessary.
- Reduce tillage. Once the field is draining adequately, he switches to no-till and strip-till to build organic matter and aggregate stability.
- Pay attention to nutrient needs. These changes improve nutrient cycling, increase soil porosity, and boost water-holding capacity.
Through these methods, he has increased soil organic matter from 1.7% up to 5.5%, and 6.5% in parts of one field. Increased organic matter and improved field health allow him to rely on nutrient cycling and to use up to 30% less fertilizer.
Dealing with Mother Nature
“Growing up, I could count on a slow, gentle two-day rain with it soaking in,” he says.
That contrasts with increasingly heavy downpours and the longer dry spells he experiences today.
“There’s a concern about how to educate farmers in the methodology to adapt to a changing climate,” says Legvold.
He regards restorative farming practices as crop insurance, allowing soil to infiltrate water more efficiently and organic matter to hold water for dry times.
Always a teacher
Legvold hasn’t allowed retirement to stop him from teaching. He works with students from nearby St. Olaf and Carleton colleges.
He collaborates with the schools to develop research projects. From working with cover crops to evaluating the nitrate levels after water passes through his fields’ saturated buffers, he provides students with learning opportunities, while he realizes the benefits of on-farm research specific to his land.
Legvold’s farm is also a popular stop for field days. He’s always willing to lend an ear and to give helpful advice to farmers who want to adopt new conservation practices.
Step one of Legvolds restorative farming is to have well-drained soils, but he knows that can lead to to N loss when excess moisture leaves the field. That’s why he’s investing in saturated buffers. His edge-of-field buffers have water-control boxes that allow him to control the amount of water draining from his field and into the adjacent stream.
During the winter months, Legvold can stop the water from leaving his fields. Then in spring, he is able to drain excessive moisture. It allows him to adapt to moisture levels during the growing season, either holding water in the field or draining it as needed. It’s another way he can manage extreme weather events.
His conservation efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. Earlier this year, he was named one of The Fertilizer Institute 4R Advocate winners. His operation is a Minnesota Water Quality Certified farm, and, in 2016, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton named him one of three Water Heroes in Minnesota.
Dave Legvold is featured in Successful Farming magazine’s “10 Successful Farmers” on pages 26 and 27 in the June/July issue.