Seeds of Wisdom: Jim Faulstich: Advocating for Prairie and Agricultural Diversity

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Jim Faulstich, left, and his son-in-law, Adam Roth, on their award-winning central South Dakota ranch. (Peter Carrels)

By Peter Carrels

We’re slowly traveling along an expanse of snowy pasture in late January. It’s been a rough winter in this part of South Dakota, with a parade of blizzards and cold fronts. Foot travel would be treacherous on this icy roadway, but it’s the only route across this prairie. So we crawl ahead in a pickup truck.

The land bordering the narrow two-track is so densely draped by dormant grasses and drifted snow that hiking there would be nearly impossible. On a rare, windless day a dramatic calm settles over the smooth topography. The sun glows yellow-orange, and an almost cloudless sky surrounds us in a dome of frigid blue air. If you conjure a romanticized image of the Great Plains in winter, this might be what you visualize.

We’re near latitude 44.6 degrees north, between the ninety-ninth and one hundredth meridian. The county is Hyde; the township is Washington. Though the soils are young and moderately fertile, this glacially influenced land is brimming with stones. With a few exceptions, grain farmers had steered clear of this area because of its short, dry growing season and all that pesky granite in the ground. But new seed hybrids, lofty commodity prices, a property tax policy that favors grain production, and a generous safety net, aka crop insurance, prompted landowners here to remove rocks and plow prairie to grow corn.

I’m touring land owned and carefully managed by Jim Faulstich, well known in these parts and beyond for his insightful views on agriculture that often depart from the status quo. Jim’s got an easy grin, and he sprinkles conversations about his land ethic with revelations detailing past mistakes that led to improvements and successes. After articulating his belief that grasslands and livestock should be integral aspects of a farmer’s land-management strategy, he modestly adds, “But what do I know?”

I’ve come here because Jim’s a guy who knows a lot. He’s appeared on a panel with Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar visited Jim’s place—Daybreak Ranch—in 2011 to see conservation agriculture firsthand. Jim has testified before congressional committees, and conservation, agriculture, and government groups often ask him to make presentations and contribute to their idea pools. Folks respect him for what he knows, and for how he describes what he knows. Forty-plus years of caretaking a place and earning a living off it builds a person’s pragmatic perspective and knowledge.

Jim and I were joined by his son-in-law, Adam Roth, a soft-spoken man who works alongside his wife’s dad to run the operation. Adam is at the wheel, and we’re barely out of the farmyard when Jim says something that catches me by surprise: “We watch birds to monitor how we’re doing with the land.” Then he rolls off a list of species—bobolinks, grasshopper sparrows, sharp-tailed grouse, greater prairie chicken, ring-necked pheasant, and others—that are part of their informal monitoring protocol. “If the birds aren’t doing well,” Jim declares, “we’re not doing something right. When you run your operation in tune with nature, wildlife prospers and the land prospers, too. That’s what I call managing for the big picture. Some use the word ‘sustainable’.”

I’m inclined to associate this sort of eco-talk with farmers and farms that are organic and smallish. Think truck farms, big gardens, or custom livestock. But Jim and Adam’s place sprawls over eight thousand acres, including 5,400 acres that they own, and they graze between 350 and 500 head of Red Angus cattle on some five thousand acres of carefully managed grasslands.

Adam drives until we’re completely surrounded by prairie. Then he stops so we can take in the view. All around us on this sunny day the land is covered with grass that glows a gentle brown.

I notice in the far distance a single-file procession of white-tailed deer trotting from a shelterbelt. They are visible from hoof to head as they bound across a field of corn stubble. I am reminded that this area is the new western fringe of the rapidly expanding Corn Belt, where cattle ranching and grain farming butt heads.

I ask about the challenges of incorporating the concept of sustainability on an operation so large. Jim gestures at the grasses and admits that his learning curve as a land manager is ongoing. “We’re always looking for ways to be better stewards. We work to create lots of diversity in the landscape, but we didn’t always do things like we do now. A lot of what we’ve learned we learned the hard way. Going through periodic drought and the hard times of the ’80s forced us to change, or we would have gone broke like a lot of folks did.”

Diversity for Jim means growing grains as well as grass and cattle. Last year Jim and Adam planted six hundred acres to corn, and they benefited from good yields. They also plant oats, wheat, sunflowers, and alfalfa, and practice field fallowing and rotations that are generously timed for conservation priorities. On harvested fields they use cover crops to protect the soil. They consciously blend the capability of their land with the type of cattle they raise. The grazing regime on their pastures adheres to principles of sustainability.

“We’re not as diverse as we’d like to be,” Jim concedes. “But we’re getting better. We believe that diversity is a huge factor in protecting the land. We practice diversity not only within our crop mix but also within the overall enterprise mix. Managed diversity is better for soil and natural resources, and it’s a safer approach for our operation’s economics.”

As we distance ourselves from Jim’s land we see large mounds of field stone that have been piled along fences during the process of converting grasslands to cornfields. The rock piles stand like tombstones on what once were tracts of prairie and pasture. At one large pile a hydraulic stone breaker was being used to splinter boulders into riprap to be hauled off to roadways and dams needing protection from stream and water erosion. There’s an irony, of course, and it’s that the chances for the soil on the converted prairie to fall victim to erosion are considerably greater after the rocks are removed and the conversion has occurred. One of Jim’s primary goals is to build and maintain healthy soils on the land he owns and manages. He values the presence of insects, worms and microorganisms in the soil, and decisions regarding his land revolve around protecting and enhancing soil vitality.

Fifteen years ago Jim was frustrated with the crop damage caused by wildlife that thrived in the bountiful habitat he had created. The land and its soils were in excellent condition, but his crops were being damaged and devoured by pheasants and deer. Then he realized that he could take advantage of his circumstance. Thus was born a pheasant hunting business that now attracts sportsmen from all over the country. Not only has it added a welcome boost to Jim and Adam’s bottom line, it also provides enjoyable camaraderie year after year with happy, repeat customers. This past fall, when the pheasant population dramatically declined elsewhere in South Dakota because so much habitat had been destroyed to grow corn, Jim’s conservation-driven approach to land management protected pheasant numbers and provided his guests with the ample shooting opportunities they’ve come to expect.

More recently Jim and Adam added a deer hunting business to their portfolio. “We’ve had as many as one thousand deer wintering on our place,” Jim says. “We didn’t want to reduce habitat, but a successful hunting operation helps us manage the size of the deer herd and reduce destruction of our crops. That’s a win-win for us.”

The recently enacted farm bill gets a mixed reaction from Jim. “I’m hopeful about the conservation side of the bill. But the commodity side needs help.” He points to crop insurance provisions as harming diversity and prairie and warns against the “all-in” approach to crop planting and land use. “Crop insurance,” he emphasizes, “encourages farmers to produce a single crop that’s profitable in the short term. But it’s not sustainable if you’re planting your whole operation to just one or two crops. My advice to farmers and ranchers is to avoid becoming too reliant on any one crop or on government payments.”

Jim’s ongoing avocation as a steward of his land blends a practical need to earn a living with other, equally important goals of providing people with a meaningful product and preserving natural resources to do that for many years. His passion is prairie and cattle, so he views himself as a rancher first and foremost, but he also calls himself a farmer because he grows grains and manages land for crop production.

Adam has returned us to the farmyard. It is quiet inside as the truck rolls to a stop. I think about Jim’s many years working the land, pondering it, learning from it, applying what he learns to it. And how important it is that he’s sharing what he’s learned with others.

“Sustainability is a buzz word now,” he says, resuming conversation. “But are we sincere about what it means? What are we really doing to the land and other resources? We’ve already lost lots of diversity and lots of grassland. Are we caretaking our land or are we mining the soil?”

What about the future of agriculture? I ask. What about the resiliency of the land and the stress it endures from industrial agriculture?

Jim has shifted in the truck’s bench seat, and is now looking through the windshield at fields beyond his yard. “I’m optimistic,” he replies, after a long moment of reflection. Turning to face me, he continues: “I’m optimistic that agriculture will resume stewardship practices that were used years ago and that it will embrace new stewardship ideas, too. We need to operate our farms and ranches with the mentality that we can compete in a world market without subsidies and without government help. We need to embrace sustainability and diversity, and we need to earn reasonable profits while protecting the environment. That’s what we’re doing here, on this place.”

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