Changing the farming playbook
On a Delaware County, Indiana, highway this summer, motorists slowed down to eye a postcard-like farm field, where golden strips of winter wheat lay in contrast to parallel green rows of soybeans.
The field belongs to Jason Mauck, a Gaston, Indiana, farmer who aims to upend production agriculture with relay cropping, multiple crop species in the same field, manure-rich biochar added to fields, and grazing multiple species of livestock.
“My goal in the next three years is to help a young farmer make a great living off of 40 acres,” Mauck writes on the social media platform Twitter. “I think it’s as simple as using multiple plants and multiple animals, moving them constantly, inviting the community to watch and learn, and making it easier for them to buy your product.”
Mauck and his grandfather farm some 3,000 acres in conventional fashion: corn, soybeans, and wheat, plus a 25,000-head wean-to-finish hog operation.
“Conventional farming pays the bills,” Mauck admits.
Yet, “conventional farming is kind of boring,” he adds. Discovering how multiple species of plants interact, compete, and protect is much more interesting, and provides a way to produce more, with fewer crop inputs.
“My background is in landscaping. I became familiar with designing multiple plant species arrangements,” he says. “I saw my business as using different plant shapes and architecture to absorb as much sun energy as possible in a 3-foot circle.”
He’s devoted 400 acres of the farm to pursuing his methodology.
Experiments are dazzling in nature:
- 60-inch, 86-day corn, with cover crops in between. Early maturity corn is largely finished when the pearl millet cover crop really begins to take off. “There is enough light between the corn to really drive the cover crop,” he says.
- Wheat/soybean relay cropping. Mauck inter-seeds soybeans in 18-inch rows, between four rows of winter wheat planted in roughly 5-inch rows. After wheat harvest, the soybean plants’ explosive growth canopies over the wheat stubble, which serves as a mulch to suppress weeds.
- Wheat/biochar planting. Mauck leads a business that develops effluent-based biochar from swine manure. He has collaborated with Dawn Equipment Company to develop a strip-till biochar rig that plants wheat seeds and biochar. The biochar boosts soil carbon and adds concentrated bands of phosphorous to the soil.
- Sheep that graze on cover crop lanes, followed by chickens in chicken tractors (portable coops). The livestock leave nutrient-dense waste to feed the soil naturally.
There’s more. On his Twitter channel, Mauck describes an experiment on a 26-acre field of terminated cereal rye in Delaware County.
One patch is planted to two 120-inch rows of corn, with four rows of soybeans in between. In another area, he has a cover crop of radishes and pearl millet between the corn rows; he aims to turn out sheep into these plots for grazing. The end rows, Mauck reckons, will support a few head of cattle. The tract includes 4 acres of woods, where 10 pigs root around, foraging for bugs in the soil to supplement the water and grain-based feed they receive each day.
In July, Mauck closed on the purchase of Munsee Meat Company, a small meat processing shop in Muncie, Indiana, that sells high-quality meats to restaurants across the state. He aims to have an outlet for like-minded farmers to process regeneratively grown animals.
Not every farmer has the chance to buy a meat company, Mauck admits, but all farmers have unique opportunities relative to their environment, location, and what they want to grow.
“It comes down to vulnerability, to create something and put it out there,” he explains. “When an opportunity comes, whether it’s in specialty crops, organic, or whatever, you need to develop that skill set, be able to execute it, and take advantage of those opportunities.”
Each day, Mauck describes his work on the land to the nearly 17,000 folks who follow his Twitter feed, @jasonmauck1. The social media platform lets him connect with other farmers and consumers. Also, he can illustrate both successful and unsuccessful methods.
Most importantly, however, Mauck’s Twitter feed serves as motivation to others. There is a community of farmers who have ideals similar to Mauck’s, and he encourages them to be vulnerable enough to be different.
“Jason is looking at ways that moderate-size farmers can optimize their productivity,” says Jay Brandt, product adviser at Walnut Creek Seeds in Carroll, Ohio. “That’s not always easy. By him putting himself out there, he’s setting an example. The good, the bad – he doesn’t keep it to himself. Even in an imperfect system, he puts it out there for everyone to see.”
Mauck recognizes that his systems don’t work for everyone. He simply aims to inspire farmers.
Brandt sees the logic. “They are all practical applications in his environment. The challenge is, how do you use those practices on your farm?” he says.
Nature, Mauck says, is a classroom. “Start with doing things 10 different ways on an acre, learn what works, and then take it to scale from there,” he says. “Not everyone’s cut of the fabric that wants to do that. But when you do this for several years, you gain confidence to do new things.”
This, he reckons, will lead to that first objective: making a living off of fewer acres.
“If we can get the market figured out and receive more value for our product, then you don’t have to chase economies of scale,” he says. “If we can figure out how to stack these multiple entities, there is going to be a way we can start having more people involved on the farm.”